COVID-19 vaccine distribution: who will get it first?

As the clinical trials for the frontrunners in the vaccine race near completion, the next stage of the vaccine development process will be distribution. This article will cover some of the main questions about the approval process for a COVID-19 vaccine in the UK, and how the vaccine will be distributed afterwards, including who will get the coronavirus vaccine first, and how long vaccine distribution might take.
Coronavirus vaccine distribution

How are vaccines approved?

On average it takes around 10-15 years for vaccine development to be completed, yet a global effort to speed up the development process has enabled progress to take place at an unprecedented rate.

There are currently over 300 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in development all over the world, of which over 50 have reached the clinical trials (human trials) stage according to the World Health Organization.

It is generally difficult to estimate when exactly a vaccine will be approved, as this is dependent upon trials gathering the necessary data on the performance of the vaccine on a varied population of different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. Only once the vaccine is determined to be safe and effective for everyone, can it then be approved. For this to happen, regulatory bodies must receive data from thousands of volunteers, from trials that take place in countries all over the world.

In the UK, the Vaccine Taskforce has secured access to six different coronavirus vaccines. Two main vaccine candidates garnering the most attention are the Oxford vaccine (being produced in collaboration with pharmaceutical company Astrazeneca) and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

How long will it take to manufacture the vaccine?

Once a vaccine has been approved, the next biggest challenge will be manufacturing doses in large quantities. The UK government has placed orders for 340 million doses of different vaccines. The manufacture of some vaccines has already begun, with distribution pending on data from clinical trials to assess how effective they are.

Testing antibodies developed from a vaccine

So far, 30 million doses of the Oxford vaccine have been ordered for use in the UK. A further 400 million doses are being manufactured for the end of 2020, to be distributed across Europe. The UK has also ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Both vaccines require two doses to work effectively.

Manufacturing any vaccine for distribution in the UK will be a process that takes place over many months, and it is likely that it will not be ready for widespread use until the middle of 2021.

How long will COVID-19 vaccine distribution take?

Initial preparations have been made to distribute the coronavirus vaccine once it is ready, including plans to use the military for wide scale delivery. The vaccine will be given in local community centers, such as sports halls, as well as care homes, pharmacies, GP clinics and special clinics that would be open seven days a week. £150 million has been given to GPs to facilitate the distribution of the vaccine.

The University of Oxford, where research and development of the vaccine is taking place.

When we look at the two frontrunners for regulatory approval, storage could play an important role in the distribution process. The University of Oxford vaccine has a storage requirement of between 2℃ and 8℃, whereas the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine requires storage at around -70℃ to -80℃, which would as a result mean that the Oxford vaccine would be easier to store and therefore distribute.

Although it is difficult to tell how long it will take to distribute the vaccine before the clinical trial data from the vaccines has been published, Sir John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of the UK government Vaccine Taskforce, has said that the early results from the Pfizer vaccine suggest that the most vulnerable could be vaccinated by Easter.

Who will get the coronavirus vaccine first?

The UK’s elderly population will likely be the group taken into consideration first, as they are at the highest risk of COVID-19 complications. Frontline medical and social care workers will also be first to receive the vaccine.

Frontline medical workers and those who work in care homes we likely be the first to get the vaccine, as well as the elderly

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has set out the UK vaccine distribution plan in an interim report. The follow groups will be prioritised to receive the vaccine in the following order:

  • elderly care home residents and care home workers

  • all those over aged 80 and over and health and social care workers

  • all those aged 75 and over

  • all those aged 70 and over and adults who are extremely clinically vulnerable

  • all those aged 65 and over

  • adults under the age of 65 with underlying health conditions that put them at risk

  • all those aged 60 and over

  • all those aged 55 and over

  • all those aged 50 and over

  • the rest of the population in an order yet to be determined

Pregnant women and children under the age of 16 are not scheduled to receive vaccinations at the present time.

The groups of highest priority could change depending on the results from the clinical trials, and whether the chosen vaccine is more effective in one age group than another.