Much has been made of the speed at which UK regulators have approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use in Britain. But will being first to approve the drug make much difference anyway, given the news this morning that Pfizer is having some difficulty rolling out the vaccine?
This morning the business secretary Alok Sharma confirmed that the NHS expects to receive 800,000 doses and is ready to begin the mass vaccination programme on Tuesday. The first batch was apparently imported from a Belgian plant through the Channel Tunnel yesterday. That is enough to vaccinate 400,000 people, with two doses, 21 days apart. To put this into context there are 1.1 million people in the highest priority group — care home residents and staff. NHS staff have already been told that they will not be receiving the first batch.
What about the other 65 million people in Britain? The government has pre-ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine — enough to inoculate 20 million people. In November, the government was expecting that 10 million of these doses would arrive by the end of 2020.
For its part, Pfizer originally planned to be in a position to ship 100 million doses of the vaccine by the end of this year. However, it has now revised this down to 50 million — a result, it said, of difficulties sourcing raw materials for the drug. Some of the raw materials it had ordered had failed to meet the standards expected of them.
The US has also pre-ordered 100 million doses and the EU 200 million doses. If the supply problems persist and the US and EU go on to approve the vaccine quickly, there is going to be a lot of competition for the limited doses that can be supplied. It is looking as if the bulk of the vaccine rollout programme may not be able to begin in the community — i.e. outside care homes and hospital settings — until the new year, which could wipe out any gain of the UK being first to approve the drug.