- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2020

The U.K. began vaccinating residents for COVID-19 on Tuesday, offering the world a real-life test of a delicate operation that requires shots from Pfizer and BioNTech to be stored at Antarctic temperatures, thawed and diluted before going into arms.

The first shot was given to Margaret Keenan, who turns 91 next week, at University Hospital Coventry, one of several hospitals around the country that are handling the initial phase of the program on what has been dubbed “V-Day.”

“I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19,” said the former jewelry shop assistant, who wore a surgical mask and a blue Merry Christmas T-shirt decorated with a cartoon penguin wearing a Santa hat and red scarf. “It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year after being on my own for most of the year.”

Britain’s National Health Service has 800,000 doses to start its campaign, or enough for 400,000 people. The vials are being made in Belgium and flown to the U.K. in “thermal shippers” that keep vials at minus-94 degrees and can be transferred to ultra-low freezers or be used out of the shipping boxes for up to 15 days with replenishments of dry ice.

The British undertaking isn’t as huge as the vaccination campaign the U.S. could launch by this weekend, though it offers a glimpse at how a nation handles the biggest questions around the actual shots, said Litjen Tan, chief strategy officer at the Immunization Action Coalition.

“How are the thermal shippers working? Are people seeing problems with the dry-ice rejuvenation? How are they managing smaller facilities who do not need 975 doses of vaccine?” he said, referring to the minimum amount of does in each tray of vaccines from Pfizer.

Russia started its mass-vaccination campaign Saturday, though it is using a Sputnik V that hasn’t undergone full and comprehensive testing, so the U.K.’s rollout is a better model for what the Americans have planned.

The Food and Drug Administration will meet with an advisory panel Thursday to discuss the Pfizer shots, paving the way for emergency approval in the U.S. Once that happens, the first vaccines will be put on FedEx and UPS planes and sent to the sites designated by states.

The U.K.’s head start is only a few days but it offers some benefit, as U.S. agencies speak to their British liaisons and report any lessons to the states, said Claire Hannah, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.

“It will be definitely good to know if they’re having any immediate problems and know how much time it takes to mix the vaccine and administer it,” she said.

The U.K. will also provide an early glimpse at whether patients who receive the shots experience side effects.

In a statement, Pfizer said it is sending doses to designated locations in the U.K. “and moving forward, vaccinations will be overseen by the Department for Health and Social Services (DHSS) and the National Health Service (NHS).”

“Pfizer remains on hand to support as needed in ensuring this medical breakthrough reaches the people that need it most,” the company said.

U.S. officials are pushing to vaccinate 20 million Americans between FDA approval and the end of the year. They’re hoping the first vaccinations, which will be set aside for health workers and people in long-term care, will reduce the death rate from COVID-19, especially among those in nursing homes.

Bringing transmission to manageable levels will take time, however, as officials distribute limited and gradual supply to prioritized groups before offering the vaccines to the general public by the spring.

“Likely, you’re not going to see a measurable diminution [of virus] for at least several weeks or if not longer. But it will come, I guarantee you,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.

Dr. Fauci said he expects younger, healthier people to access the vaccines from April to June. If at least seven in 10 Americans get vaccinated, “we should be in good shape” by mid-summer, he told New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo by video-link at the Democratic governor’s press conference.

In the meantime, Mr. Cuomo ordered hospitals in his state to increase bed capacity by 25%. He said most of New York’s spread has been traced to household gatherings, putting the focus on Christmas activities as the U.S. tallies nearly 200,000 known infections per day.

“Without substantial mitigation, the middle of January can be a really dark time for us,” Dr. Fauci told Mr. Cuomo.

More than 101,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the U.S. as of Sunday, the highest level of the pandemic. More than 2,000 people are dying, on average, per day from the virus in the U.S.

Mr. Cuomo threatened to clamp down on indoor restaurant dining if the health system is stretched too thin.

“If you’re going to overwhelm the hospital system, then we have no choice but to go to closedown,” he said.

On the West Coast, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued restrictions Sunday that affect wide swaths of the state. The rules ban residents from gathering with people outside their households and restrict retail-store capacity to 20%, while shutting down restaurant-dining, salons and movie theaters.

Restrictions on outdoor dining drew a rebuke from Adm. Brett Giroir, the White House’s coronavirus testing czar.

“The evidence clearly does not support limitations on things like outdoor dining, particularly that are spaced, outdoor bars,” Adm. Giroir, an assistant health secretary and four-star admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, told Fox News.

“You know, the evidence just isn’t there,” he said. “And remember, shutting down completely, particularly if you don’t have evidence, can be counterproductive.”

As localities try to manage the surge, senior administration officials denied a New York Times report that said President Trump passed up a chance to secure additional doses from Pfizer in the late summer. They said there will be a sufficient number of doses for every American who wants them by the second quarter of 2021.

“We have continued to negotiate with all of the vaccine manufacturers,” a senior administration official said. “We’re not going to talk about those because those negotiations are underway.”

Mr. Trump plans to sign an executive order during a vaccine summit at the White House on Tuesday that directs his administration to satisfy the needs of Americans who want a COVID-19 vaccine before agencies try to help foreign nations that need doses.

The summit will also feature panel discussions with a key FDA official, Peter Marks, vaccine distributors and Republican governors who will praise the federal partnership with their states.

On Friday, all the states locked in where they want the first shipments of vaccine to go.

Ms. Hannan said there are three main approaches to storing the Pfizer shots. Some states are relying on a centralized form of storage, where they would store the vaccine and redistribute it in smaller amounts. Others are using a “hub-and-spoke” model where regions have a coordinated system in which one hospital might receive the package of doses and share doses with other facilities in the area. The third consists of having the vaccines sent directly to a distribution site, where they will be administered within five days so handlers don’t have to replenish dry ice.

States should get the chance to road-test their preferred methods within days.

“The anxiety level is high,” Ms. Hannan said. “But it’s in a good way.”

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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