LONDON — Britain began the mass-vaccination of its population against COVID-19 on Tuesday, becoming the first Western nation to do so in a global endeavor that poses one of the biggest logistical challenges in peacetime history.
On a day dubbed “V-Day,” health workers started inoculating people with a shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, with the country a test case for the world as it contends with distributing a compound that must be stored at -70C (-94F).
Margaret Keenan, a grandmother who turns 91 in a week, became the first person in the world to receive the vaccine outside of a trial when she received the shot at her local hospital in Coventry, central England.
“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,” she said.
“I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19,” added Keenan, from Northern Ireland, as she received the shot from nurse May Parsons, originally from the Philippines, in front of a photographer and TV crew.
The BBC said the second patient to receive the jab in Britain was a man named William Shakespeare from Warwickshire.
The launch will fuel hope that the world may be turning a corner in the fight against a pandemic that has killed more than 1.5 million people, with Britain the worst-hit European country with over 61,000 deaths.
Britain is the first nation globally to begin mass inoculations with the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, one of three vaccines that have reported successful results from large trials after being developed in record time.
Russia and China have both started giving domestically produced vaccine candidates to their populations, though before final safety and efficacy trials have been completed.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the start of vaccinations as “V-Day.”
“If we manage to do that for everybody who is vulnerable to this disease, then we can move on and we can return to normal,” he said, adding that he expected millions to be vaccinated by the end of the year.
The country has ordered enough supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot to vaccinate 20 million people. The developers said it was 95% effective in preventing illness in final-stage trials.
In Britain, about 800,000 doses are expected to be available within the first week, with care home residents and carers, the over-80s, and some health service workers prioritized.
Hancock said that he had a “high degree of confidence” Britain would take delivery of another batch of the vaccine next week.
The country is relatively small with good infrastructure. Yet the logistical challenges in distributing the vaccine, which only lasts five days in a regular fridge, mean it will first go to dozens of hospitals and cannot yet be taken into care homes.
Bigger tests could await for the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, as well as a vaccine from Moderna, which was found to have a similar level of success in trials and is based on the same mRNA genetic technology that requires such ultra-cold storage.
Transport and distribution could prove more challenging in bigger countries, including the United States and India which have been worst-hit by the pandemic, and in hotter nations.
The third vaccine to have had trial success, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, is viewed as offering one of the best hopes for many developing countries because it is cheaper and can be transported at normal fridge temperatures. Late-stage trials found it had an average success rate of 70%.
UK Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said vaccines that were easier to store and deploy, such as the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot, would play a key role. Britain hopes for regulatory approval of that vaccine in the next couple of weeks.
Britain approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for emergency use less than a week ago, and is rolling it out ahead of the United States and European Union, from which it will finally part ways at the end of the year.
“The deployment of this vaccine marks a decisive turning point in the battle with the pandemic,” said Simon Stevens, head of the publicly funded NHS health service.
In total, Britain has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech shot. As each person requires two doses, that is enough to vaccinate 20 million people in the country of 67 million.
But the country is spreading its bets and has ordered 357 million doses of seven different COVID-19 vaccines in all.
Keenan, an early riser, received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at her local hospital in Coventry, central England, on Tuesday morning at 0631 GMT, a week before she turns 91.
Keenan, known as Maggie to her friends, is a former jewellery shop assistant who only retired four years ago. She has a daughter, a son and four grandchildren.
Video footage showed her wearing a light blue mask, a gray cardigan along with a blue t-shirt with a penguin in snow and the message “Merry Christmas” as she received the shot in her left arm from nurse May Parsons.
Parsons, one of many thousands of people from around the world employed in Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), where she has worked for 24 years, said the last few months had been tough, but there was now light at the end of the tunnel.
Another British woman, who lost her husband to COVID-19 in April, was also among those offered to get the vaccine.
Gill Rogers, 86, last saw her husband in mid-March at the care home where he was living. Then the pandemic hit, she was no longer able to visit him, and in late April he died.
“The death certificate showed several things but it also showed COVID-19,” Rogers said in a BBC radio interview, shortly before she was due to receive the vaccine.
She has been grieving alone, as her children and other relatives have been avoiding contact with her for fear of exposing her to the virus.
“That’s been quite hard,” she said, her voice cracking.
Rogers, who lives near Brighton in southern England, said she had spent most of the year on her own, keeping out of shops as much as possible and avoiding public transport altogether.
She said that when she received a call during the weekend offering her an early appointment to get the vaccine on Tuesday, she immediately said yes.
“I shan’t be so careful, I shan’t be so worried, I will go in shops more and with luck I might get onto public transport,” she said.
Asked whether she had had any doubts about the safety of the vaccine, she answered: “No. None at all.”
She said she knew there were people who had concerns, and she had contacted the BBC because she thought talking about her own situation might help them overcome those doubts.
“That’s why I contacted you, because I thought there might be people who it would help to have it, who wouldn’t have had it perhaps.”
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Stephen Powis, medical director for NHS England, said they both found it very emotional watching the vaccine program rollout.