COVID-19: Pfizer vaccine is a big boost - now we have to decide how best to use it

·3-min read

This wasn't a Downing Street news briefing full of political hyperbole - we've had a few of those over the course of the pandemic.

This was the turn of the government medical advisers to set out why the new COVID-19 vaccine is as safe as it possibly can be - as well as a realistic assessment of just what the NHS is up against in rolling it out to 20 million people.

There were the usual slides, this time of the different hoops a vaccine has to jump through to gather the data on its safety and effectiveness.

That's involved clinical trials on tens of thousands of people, which have been run almost in parallel to speed up the development.

And the medical regulator has already begun what it calls a "rolling review" of the data as it comes in to speed up the final assessment.

What would normally take many months is now taking just a few weeks.

That's not cutting corners, it's speeding up bureaucracy.

And if the deputy chief medical officer reckons it's safe enough for his 78-year-old mum, that's a pretty good sign of confidence in the process.

Getting the vaccine into the arms of 20 million people is going to be an extraordinary challenge.

There will be pop-up vaccination centres, mobile vans, as well as home visits to vulnerable people who are unable to travel.

And this with a vaccine that needs to be kept at -80C (-112F) and needs to be mixed with another liquid before being injected. This is no user-friendly pre-filled syringe. It's complicated and time-consuming.

Somehow GPs will have to take on the work at the same time as making sure that they don't neglect other patients, who may, for example, have vague symptoms that could be cancer.

There has been a lot of talk in recent days about life being back to normal by Easter. But, a 90% effective vaccine still leaves 10% of those who have it vulnerable.

When I asked Professor Jonathan Van-Tam whether that was realistic, when dozens of people a day could still be dying despite having had the vaccine, he made no promises. "It would be wrong of me," he said.

What happens after the most vulnerable have had the jab still has to be decided.

The government's chief adviser on immunisations, Professor Wei Shen Lim, revealed that there would be a phase two to the rollout.

He said it could be that healthy people under the age of 50, who miss out in phase one, would get the jab at that stage because of the risk of long-COVID, the debilitating after-effects of infection.

Until the vast majority of the population has had the vaccine, we don't stand a chance of having herd immunity. The virus would still circulate, causing outbreaks, serious illnesses and deaths.

The vaccine is without question good news. Now we have to decide how best to use it so we really can get back to normal.