Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old grandmother from Britain, has become the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outside of a trial following its rapid clinical approval.
An early riser, Keenan received the jab at her local hospital in Coventry, central England, on Tuesday morning at 06:31 GMT, a week before she turns 91.
“It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can 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,” said Keenan.
The UK began rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, dubbed “V-Day”, the first Western country to start vaccinating its general population in what was hailed as a decisive watershed in defeating the coronavirus.
On Saturday, Russia began vaccinating thousands of doctors, teachers and others at dozens of centres in Moscow with its Sputnik V vaccine. That programme is being viewed differently because Russia authorised use of Sputnik V last summer after it was tested in only a few dozen people.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, usually reserved, said he felt “quite emotional”, adding that 70 hospitals in the country would start the vaccine programme.
The mass inoculation will raise hope that the world may be turning a corner in the fight against a pandemic that has crushed economies and killed more than 1.5 million, although ultra-cold storage and tricky logistics will limit its use for now.
The UK has recorded 61,000 COVID-19 related deaths – more than any other country has reported in Europe, and over 1.7 million cases.
Oksana Pyzik, a teaching fellow at University College London’s School of Pharmacy, told Al Jazeera: “It is wrong to take what we would do in a regular year and apply that to this circumstance, because the sense of urgency, the funding and the level of collaboration have enormously shifted – that is what has made this possible.
“We expect that [other] vaccines that are not too far behind.”
‘Decisive turning point’
UK public health officials are asking the public to be patient because only those who are most at risk from COVID-19 will be vaccinated in the early stages.
Medical staff will contact patients to arrange appointments, and most will have to wait until next year before there is enough vaccine to expand the programme.
“I think there’s every chance that we will look back on … (Tuesday) as marking a decisive turning point in the battle against coronavirus,” said Simon Stevens, the CEO of England’s National Health Service.
The first 800,000 doses are going to people more than 80 years of age who are either hospitalised or already have outpatient appointments scheduled, along with nursing home workers. Others will have to wait their turn.
The UK, home to about 67 million people, has ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine – enough to inoculate 20 million people, as it is given in two injections, 21 days apart.
There are three routes for transporting the vaccine into the country, which officials have warned will be challenging because it needs to be shipped and stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94F), or below.
Because the vaccine needs to be stored at this level, to begin with, people will only be inoculated at hospitals, rather than in nursing homes.
Among those elder Britons scheduled to get vaccinated is Hari Shukla of Newcastle.
“When I received the telephone call, I was very excited I got the opportunity of joining in and taking part in that,″ he said. “So we are very, very pleased and happy and excited as well.″
Buckingham Palace refused to comment on reports that Queen Elizabeth II, 94, and her 99-year-old husband, Prince Philip, would be vaccinated as a public example of its safety.
“Our goal is totally to protect every member of the population, Her Majesty, of course, as well,” Dr June Raine, chief executive of Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, told the BBC broadcast network.
While the UK has a well-developed infrastructure for delivering vaccines, it is geared to administer them to groups such as school children or pregnant women, not the whole population.
The UK is getting a head start on the project after UK regulators on December 2 gave emergency authorisation to the vaccine produced by US drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech.
US and European Union authorities are also reviewing the vaccine, alongside rival products developed by US biotechnology company Moderna and a collaboration between Oxford University and UK-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca.
The first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were delivered to a selected group of UK hospitals on Sunday.
At one of those facilities, Croydon University Hospital, south of London, staff members could not so much as touch the vials, but they were thrilled to just have them in the building.
“I’m so proud,” said Louise Coughlan, joint chief pharmacist at Croydon Health Services NHS Trust.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from London, said: “Margaret Keenan will be the face in the history books but away from the cameras, more people are going to be getting the same injection.
“They’re calling it the biggest vaccination rollout in the history of the UK’s National Health Service.
“Most vaccines take 10 years to get to this stage. 10 months is a huge achievement.”