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U.K. Prepares To Distribute COVID-19 Vaccine


It feels like a light at the end of the tunnel in the U.K. A COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for emergency use there, and many will receive it as early as this week. The U.K. is the first Western country to license a vaccine. But lots of questions, both moral and logistical, remain about the distribution. Sarah Boseley is the health editor for The Guardian. We've reached her in London. Welcome.

SARAH BOSELEY: Very pleased to be with you.

ELLIOTT: So what is the latest on plans for the rollout in the U.K.?

BOSELEY: Well, it's really exciting because the deliveries to hospitals around the U.K. are going to happen tomorrow, Monday. And they are saying that the very first vaccinations will take place on Tuesday. So we're really almost there.

ELLIOTT: Remind us, if you would, which vaccine we're talking about here because there are several in the works at the moment.

BOSELEY: Yes, indeed. This is the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is made with a novel technology called messenger RNA. So this is very much brand-new. It's the same as the Moderna technology that's coming along behind and that - we have another one in process, as well, from Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

ELLIOTT: Are there any challenges that come with the Pfizer vaccine?

BOSELEY: Yes, this is actually logistically the most difficult of the three that we're looking at because it has to be kept at -70 centigrade. Now, that is deep, deep frozen. And it also comes in boxes of multi-vials. So there's something like five doses to each vial, and each box has 975 doses. Now, because they're kept in this deep-frozen state, they then have to be very, very carefully split up. And that is the bit, actually, that hasn't yet been properly figured out.

ELLIOTT: So just like in the U.S., the tough question is about distribution. Who is getting this first? You say care homes are in line. That's like the nursing homes here in the U.S. How has the U.K. tackled the matter of who comes first?

BOSELEY: Well, we have an expert committee that's decided this. They're known as the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. They are very independent, but they're an advisory body to the government. So their advice is being taken everywhere. And the No. 1 priority is care home, nursing home residents - also those staff who work in them, for obvious reasons. And the No. 2 is everybody over the age of 80, plus health care workers. After that, it's the over-75s. And then it goes down in descending age order, except quite high up there are people who have underlying serious health conditions.

ELLIOTT: How is it that the U.K. was able to get approval for the vaccine so quickly ahead of countries like the U.S.?

BOSELEY: The main difference, actually, with the United States is that the FDA in the United States actually demands all the raw details. So that's all the data that there are - the raw data, I should say, from those trials. And then they do their own statistical analysis. So they do not depend on the company summaries. They're not taking what the companies say as necessarily accurate. So they will do their own data analysis and hopefully come up with exactly the same results. And also, you have an independent committee that's going to review the technologies because these are new technologies. So I think you're going to get a result fairly soon. But it's just that bit behind us. Now, our regulator is saying terrific, but you really don't need all of that. It's very hard for us to know whether that's so or not. But actually, if you think about it, the regulatory approval probably is going to take maybe a week longer in the States. It may not be much more than that.

ELLIOTT: Sarah Boseley is the health editor for The Guardian. Thank you so much for being with us.

BOSELEY: It's a great pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.