A 90-year-old woman in the United Kingdom is now the first person in the world to receive a government-approved Covid-19 vaccine backed by robust clinical trials, marking the start of the country’s national mass vaccination campaign.
Margaret Keenan, a grandmother who turns 91 next week, received the first of the UK’s 800,000 doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccine early Tuesday morning at the University Hospital in Coventry.
“I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against Covid-19,” Keenan said, according to the UK’s National Health Service. “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.”
The UK granted temporary emergency use authorization for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine last week, beating the United States and Europe in the race to approve a vaccine. The country purchased 40 million doses of this version of the two-dose vaccine, which will go toward inoculating 20 million people through 2021.
As Vox’s Umair Irfan has reported, the UK government is prioritizing vaccination based primarily on age and “on the number of vaccinations that would be needed in each tier to prevent one death, not necessarily the risk of exposure.” Older people, specifically those living in care facilities, and the personnel who work in such places are the first in line to receive the new vaccine, based on the guidelines drawn up by the country’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
After Keenan, the second dose went to, appropriately, William Shakespeare, an 81-year-old man from Warwickshire — giving the internet the chance to break out a lot of Bard jokes in addition to celebrating this historic moment. (And yes, he’s probably a relation.)
“It could make a difference to our lives from now on, couldn’t it?” Shakespeare said after getting the shot.
According to the BBC, about 4 million people in the UK could be vaccinated by the end of this month.
“This marks the start of the [National Health Service]’s herculean task to deploy vaccines right across the UK, in line with its founding mission, to support people according to clinical need, not ability to pay,” UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Tuesday.
“And while today is a day to celebrate, there is much work to be done,” he added. “We must all play our part in suppressing the virus until the vaccine can make us safe, and we can all play our part in supporting the NHS to deliver the vaccine across the country.”
The United Kingdom experienced one of the worst excess death rates in Europe in the first wave of the pandemic and experienced a deadly second wave this fall. As of Tuesday, the country has confirmed more than 1.7 million cases of Covid-19 and recorded more than 61,000 deaths in its population of roughly 66 million. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was himself gravely ill and hospitalized with Covid-19 in the spring.
Johnson, who has recently faced a revolt from his own party over Covid-19 restrictions, may get a much-needed political boost from the UK becoming the first country to approve and prepare to distribute a vaccine backed by rigorous clinical trials. (China and Russia have already begun administering their own Covid-19 vaccines to their populations, but they’ve done so before large-scale clinical trials have been completed, and serious questions remain about their safety and efficacy.)
After months of sickness and lockdowns, the first vaccinations in the United Kingdom represent some welcome good news: a real sign that there will be an end to the pandemic.
The United States likely won’t be too far behind the UK. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to grant emergency use authorization to the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine as soon as this week, after the FDA reviewed the company’s data on its efficacy, which is about 95 percent. That means vaccinations could roll out in the US before the end of the year, with health care workers the first in line.
But in the UK and elsewhere, the effort to vaccinate populations against Covid-19 is an extraordinarily challenging undertaking, one that could face serious logistical hurdles and public distrust.
Most of all, it’s going to take time. The United States is in the most dire phase of the coronavirus pandemic to date, recently setting hospitalization and single-day death records. A vaccine approval can’t undo the death and devastation that’s happening now.
The speed of vaccination approval — less than a year — is remarkable, but it is going to take many, many months before most people not named William Shakespeare will get a dose.
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