Science and Tech Columnist


Keir Smith explains why students may need to wait a while to receive the Covid-19 vaccination.

A new horizon seems to be upon us regarding the fight against Covid-19. The emergence of a host of vaccines reaching the trial phase presents the much-needed opportunity to return to normal. This is an important milestone for a scientific community caught with its trousers down all those months ago.

Recently, the UK has become the first globally to approve the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine. The MHRA, UK medicine regulator, states that the injection is “safe to use”. This paves the pathway for those questioning how distribution will be managed, who will receive it first and whether they will be eligible.

Extreme storage conditions

As far as logistics go, a monumental challenge lies ahead. The Pfizer BioNTech jab, of which the UK has ordered over 40 million, presents unique challenges. This vaccine needs to be stored at an unprecedented -70C, a temperature reached only by specialist deep freezers. The reality is that only large hospitals, universities and labs are likely to contain such equipment. No approved drug has ever needed storage as cold as this. Additionally, from the moment the vaccine leaves the factory, it can only be in conditions above -70C four times before it is injected into a patient’s arm. However, for up to two days before injection, it can be stored at a warmer temperature. This implies that the injection may be able to be administered two days after arrival without the need for new deep freezer systems. 

In response to this, Pfizer decided to develop a small suitcase where 975 doses can easily be kept on dry ice. Keeping the vaccine stable for 10 days, with an extra 15 days guaranteed if more dry ice can be procured. Dry ice is considered hazardous, meaning travel by air or sea must be careful. The suitcase packed full of vaccines is likely to travel by land from the manufacturing plant in Puurs, Belgium. 

Not to mention the NHS staff shortage and a growing ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement, the government has got a coordination nightmare on its hands.

Who will be vaccinated?

Broadly, the vaccination plan will be centralised around the NHS, with the first port of call being to triage who receives the vaccine first. 

As of the time of writing these are the eligibility criteria – much the same as those used to decide who has a yearly flu jab:

  • all over the age of 50
  • those in a high-risk category
  • care home residents and staff
  • all health and care workers 

There has already been agreement to begin with older adults living in care facilities, followed by those over 80 and healthcare workers. This has been based on advice set out by the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation. It is expected those over 50 will be next in line, with the lowest priority being the youngest and those without pre-existing health conditions. As you can see, the vast majority of students do not meet eligibility criteria, and therefore it may be quite a while till we see a fully vaccinated campus.

Where will they be vaccinated?

Initially vaccines will be given at approximately 50 hospitals already equipped with the deep freezers needed to keep the vaccine stable. This makes access for healthcare workers very easy - however, it is much harder for those in care homes. As the vaccine can only be stored in sets of 975 doses, the NHS proposes to offer a mobile service and work with care homes to transport resident populations to and from hospital. Each care home will be individually contacted when it is their turn.

After protecting the two key groups most at risk, The NHS prepares to set up around 1500 vaccination centres throughout the UK. Many of these are currently under construction. Anywhere with ample space is suitable; examples include conference centres and stadiums.

Once these centres have been set up, people will likely be able to receive vaccination from their local GP or pharmacy. It is expected that this should be possible by January at the earliest.

The centralised approach is comprehensive, yet leaves little choice for individuals regarding where and when they get the vaccine. It is likely that it will be impossible for individuals or separate organisations to privately procure any vaccines. Not just because the government's reorders have reserved all current production output, but because the producers are unlikely to work with small organisations. However, on the plus side, this means that distribution will be fair and based on the risk category – not who has the most money. 


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