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Britain launches the West’s first mass coronavirus vaccination — with a Maggie and a William Shakespeare first in line

On Dec. 8, Margaret Keenan, 90, and William Shakespeare, 81, became the first British patients to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine shot. (Video: Reuters)

LONDON — It took barely a second. She rolled up her sleeve, and Britain's Margaret Keenan on Tuesday became the first person to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shot outside of clinical trials, as the first mass coronavirus immunization campaign in the West began.

The 90-year-old grandmother and former jewelry shop assistant received her jab, as the Brits would say, at University Hospital in Coventry, England, at 6:31 a.m. local time. The nurse, May Parsons, told her to relax her arm.

"I feel so privileged to be the first," said Keenan, known to friends as Maggie, adding that it meant she could "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."

That was one quick shot for Maggie, one giant leap for humankind.

"My advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it ­— if I can have it at 90, then you can have it, too," she said. As she was wheeled down the hallway at the hospital, staff members in masks and visors gave her a round of applause.

British health officials hailed the first injections as a turning point in the fight against a virus that has infected 67 million people around the globe, killing more than 1.54 million.

“I’m feeling quite emotional, actually, watching those pictures,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News, which broadcast footage of Keenan getting the jab live. “It’s been such a tough year for so many people, and finally we have our way through it, our light at the end of the tunnel.”

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And the world is watching to see how the country where vaccines were invented three centuries ago rolls out its largest and speediest health campaign, deploying a revolutionary new vaccine that requires extremely special care and handling.

This first vaccine is being manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and was developed by a husband-and-wife team at the small German company BioNTech.

Thousands of nurses, pharmacists and medical technicians, bolstered by legions of volunteers and members of the British military, will safeguard, transport, unpack and jab millions of doses into the upper arms of a nation grown weary of lockdowns and loneliness, anxiety and sickness.

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Very soon, other nations are expected to follow. The United States could grant emergency authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the end of the week. Europe, by the end of the month.

The ultimate goal is to inoculate enough people to confer individual immunity and eventually stop the virus’s spread. But until more vaccine doses are available and other vaccines are approved, officials in Britain and elsewhere are balancing the need to protect the most vulnerable against the need to slow transmission.

Parsons, the nurse who delivered the first shot, is originally from the Philippines and has worked for the taxpayer-funded National Health Service for 24 years. She said it was a “huge honor” to “play a part in this historic day.”

“The last few months have been tough for all of us working in the NHS,” she said.

The second person to be vaccinated at the hospital was 81-year-old William Shakespeare, whose name prompted an inevitable flurry of puns. The Metro newspaper tweeted a picture of him with the caption “The Taming of the Flu.” One person on social media asked if Keenan was patient 1A, then was Shakespeare “Patient 2B or not 2B?” Another chimed in with “The Two Gentlemen of Corona.”

Man named William Shakespeare, one of the first to get Pfizer vaccine, sets off pun cascade

Simon Stevens, chief executive for NHS England, said this would be the “largest vaccination program this country has ever seen.” He cautioned that it was a marathon, not a sprint.

“But if we all stay vigilant in the weeks and months ahead, we will be able to look back at this as a decisive turning point in the battle against the virus,” he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “a shot in the arm for an entire nation.” He visited a London hospital Tuesday morning and spoke to patients waiting in a queue. He told one that a way to calm nerves about needles was to recite poetry.

“I always try think of something else. Recite some poetry,” he told her.

British officials say they hope to vaccinate “the majority” of especially vulnerable people by the end of February. Priority, though, will go to people over age 80 and to nursing home caregivers.

It will be a while before shots make it to nursing home residents, as the government doesn’t yet have the ability or approval to offer Pfizer injections at those facilities.

Also excluded from the initial round will be most front-line hospital workers. That runs counter to what the United States and most other countries are planning. Although Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said high-risk hospital staff in Britain will be offered “any leftover spare doses” at the end of each day.

Even for Britain’s highest-priority groups, demand could quickly outstrip supply in the early months, public health officials warned.

The country has preordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer product, enough to immunize 20 million people, as two doses are required, three weeks apart. It has also hedged its bets and reserved another 300 million doses of five vaccines in development.

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But the Pfizer vaccine is the only one approved so far, and the 800,000 initial doses Britain is set to receive this month “could be the only batch we receive for some time,” Hopson cautioned last week.

The government says up to 4 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine are coming soon, but exactly how much and when depends on the company’s manufacturing capability at its plant in Belgium.

The vaccine is not like a traditional shot that injects a crippled version of a virus. Instead, it uses a bit of messenger RNA, which encourages the body to produce antibodies to repel the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus.

The vaccine has shown great promise, demonstrating 95 percent protection in large-scale human trials. It also presents a great challenge. It needs to be stored and shipped at seriously cold temperatures of minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit.

British regulators, in granting emergency approval, said that the vaccine cannot be moved more than four times and that the trays of 975 doses packed in dry ice cannot be split apart.

Hopson said the first trays are being delivered from the freezers at National Health Service warehouses to 50 hospitals in England. Similar efforts are underway in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

NHS officials said primary-care physicians are providing lists of people over 80 who are mobile enough to get to a hospital clinic, and hospital appointment bookers are calling those people for timed, 15-minute slots. Some afternoon slots will be reserved for nursing home staff members, who are being contacted by their employers.

Vaccination will take place in separate, dedicated clinics at the hospitals, so those getting shots do not come in contact with patients who might be infected with the virus.

“The electronic prescribing system will cleverly, automatically book the patient for their three-weeks-later, second-dose appointment,” Hopson said. “It will also, equally cleverly, automatically send a letter to the patient and their GP with details of that appointment and first dose.”

China is also now rolling out a campaign to inoculate more than a billion people, and it claims it has already injected a million of its citizens with one of its five experimental vaccines.

Russia began a mass program to inject doctors, teachers and social workers in hard-hit Moscow over the weekend. It is not known how effective the experimental Chinese or Russian vaccines are because the makers there have reported scant data on clinical trials.

Britain was the first country in the West to approve a coronavirus vaccine.

The United States may not be far behind. In analysis published Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration confirmed the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. On Thursday, an advisory committee will decide whether to recommend it for immediate use, with an FDA decision to follow soon after. The first doses would be expected to ship to states within hours of approval, with a target of 6.4 million doses distributed in the first week.

European Union regulators, meanwhile, have suggested they will make a decision on the Pfizer vaccine by Dec. 29.

June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which regulates vaccines in Britain, said the immunization program beginning Tuesday “will help us turn the corner. There’s really not one of us who hasn’t been affected by this pandemic, and our organization, like every other, has been completely focused on doing our job to be able to help defeat this terrible disease.”

One big question, though, is how many people will be willing to get a shot. More than a third of people in Britain say they are unlikely to accept a vaccine when it’s available, according to an opinion poll published Sunday by the Observer newspaper.

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End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

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