Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations start across the US

Hospitals in the US have started vaccinating their front-line staff against COVID-19, as deaths in the country crossed the 300,000 threshold with more than 200,000 new cases reported yesterday.

Shipments of Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine BNT-162b are being shipped to hundreds of hospitals and other distribution facilities across the US, with the first three million doses earmarked for  healthcare workers and elderly.

Just three days after the FDA granted Emergency Use Authorisation for the shot, the first dose administered outside a clinical trial was given yesterday to intensive care nurse Sandra Lindsay at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York.

It’s likely to be months before all eligible healthcare workers for the first wave receive vaccinations. Hopeful eyes are already turning to the Moderna’s mRNA-1273 vaccine, which is scheduled to be reviewed by FDA advisors on Thursday, to help boost available supplies.

The first nursing home residents aren’t expected to start receiving their doses until next week, according to Army General Gustave Perna, chief operating officer for Operation Warp Speed, the US vaccination task force.

The immunisation programme comes as hospitals around the country say they are already struggling to cope with the influx of COVID-19. The US has the highest death toll from the disease worldwide, ahead of Brazil, India and Mexico, and there are fears of a further spike as the holiday season gathers pace.

The US government is predicting that 20 million Americans will have received at least one of the two doses of the vaccines by the end of the year, with another 30 million set to be immunised during January and another 50 million by the end of March.

President Trump took a break from his relentless tweeting about alleged election fraud to briefly acknowledge the milestone on the path to recovery from the pandemic.

Canada also gave the first doses of BNT-162b to healthcare workers yesterday, a week after the UK started the ball rolling on its own vaccination programme – the first to get started in the world.

Because BNT-162b is made from RNA, it has strict temperature requirements and has to be stored at -70 C in dry ice to prevent it from breaking down, although it can be kept at regular refrigeration temperatures temporarily – around three days – after being defrosted for administration.

That will pose a logistical challenge for all countries, requiring a massive and carefully controlled shipping operation as doses come off the production line at Pfizer’s facility in Michigan.

Around 5 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine could be ready to ship straightaway if the FDA gives a green light, possibly as soon as Friday, with distributor McKesson handling that roll-out. Moderna’s shot is a little easier to handle as it only needs to be kept at -20 C.

Meanwhile, Operation Warp Speed’s chief executive Dr Moncef Slauoi also suggested yesterday that Johnson & Johnson could get approval for its shot in late January or early in February, while AstraZeneca may be in a position to seek FDA approval as early as February.

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