All Eyes on U.K. for Western World’s First Covid Shots

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    The U.K.’s National Health Service launched what it has called the biggest immunization campaign in its history, starting Covid vaccinations across the country.

    People over 80 are at the front of the line for the shot made by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE on Tuesday, with tens of thousands expected to get vaccinated in the coming days. The U.K. is the first western nation to begin its program, having approved the jab last week.

    Margaret Keenan was the first person to get the vaccine at about 6:30 a.m., according to a statement. Receiving a shot at a hospital in Coventry was “the best early birthday present I could wish for,” said Keenan, who’s due to turn 91 next week, because it meant she’d be able to spend time with her family and friends in the new year after being on her own for most of 2020.

    “At the moment I don’t know how I feel — just so strange and wonderful, really,” she told reporters. “This is for a good cause, so I’m so pleased to have it done.”

    Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed a “huge step forward” in the fight against the coronavirus, which has infected more than 1.7 million people and killed more than 61,000 people in Britain. The U.K.’s speedy clearance of the vaccine has drawn criticism from experts in the U.S. and Europe, though domestic regulators say they’ve put safety first.

    The stakes are high for Johnson’s government after missteps earlier in its handling of the pandemic, with the U.K. recording Europe’s highest death toll from the virus and reeling from the economic fallout of repeated lockdowns. Now it faces the logistical challenge of rolling out the vaccine to a country of 67 million people, amid concern that end-of-year holidays could spur a new wave of infections.

    “It’s important for people to understand that the virus is, alas, still rising in some parts of the country,” Johnson told television reporters. “We can’t afford to relax now.”

    As the program ramps up in the weeks ahead, Britons should continue to follow the social distancing rules in their area, the prime minister said. Some 99% of England’s population are currently in the top two tiers of restrictions — with many regions forced to close pubs and restaurants — as the government attempts to curb the spread of the virus.

    Fifty hospitals are initially taking part in the vaccination campaign and have started scheduling over-80s for shots and working with care-home providers to book their employees into vaccination clinics. Around 800,000 doses are expected to be available in the first week, with as many as 4 million available by the end of the year, according to NHS Providers, which represents hospitals.

    Any appointments not used for these groups will be available for health-care workers at highest risk of serious illness from Covid-19, NHS England said. All those vaccinated will need a second shot 21 days after the initial jab.

    A number of community-based family doctors will start vaccinations next week, before mass vaccination centers — based in sporting venues and conference centers — are brought online when further supplies of the vaccine become available.

    Despite surveys showing sizeable portions of the population are skeptical about the benefits of a vaccine or worried about safety, there’s no need for concern, Johnson said.

    “I would say to all those who are scared: Don’t be,” he said. “There is nothing to be nervous about.”

    The U.K. has struck deals for 357 million vaccine doses from seven makers, including the Pfizer-BioNTech collaboration. It plans to combine that shot with one from AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford in trials next year, according to the U.K. Vaccine Taskforce.

    When asked what went through her mind when she found out she was going to be the first to get the Pfizer shot, Keenan said she “thought it was a joke.”

    “I’m happy it’s happened, and hopefully it’ll help other people come along and do as I did, and try and do the best to get rid of this terrible thing,” she said.

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