Mass COVID-19 Immunization Plans Raise Huge Challenges

Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, has likened the scientists who have developed coronavirus vaccines to the cavalry arriving just in the nick of time. “The toot of the bugle is louder,” he reassured Britons during a recent news conference.   But like his European counterparts, Johnson’s government is scrambling to come up with a vaccine distribution plan and is having to answer key logistical and epidemiological questions, including who should be in the early waves to receive inoculations and how to ramp up a mass immunization program able to vaccinate millions as soon as possible.   On Tuesday, British regulators approved the use of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, saying a rollout will begin next week. Health minister Matt Hancock said the approval of the vaccine is “fantastic news.”   Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street in London, Britain, Dec. 2, 2020.And at a Wednesday press conference, Johnson admitted that it would be an “immense logistical challenge” just to get the vulnerable inoculated.  “It will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected — long, cold months. So it’s all the more vital that as we celebrate this scientific achievement we are not carried away with over-optimism or fall into the naive belief that the struggle is over,” he said.  Most countries say they will focus early inoculations on medical professionals and care workers and vulnerable groups, the elderly and those with chronic underlying health conditions.   Thereafter it gets more complicated.   Vaccine skepticismAnd another crucial question is how to persuade enough people to accept vaccinations so that the virus can be suppressed.  Even before the emergence of the coronavirus, Europeans were among the most skeptical about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, according to a pre-pandemic survey of 140,000 people across more than 140 countries.   The survey conducted for the Wellcome Trust, a medical research charity based in London, found that in France, Austria, Switzerland, Russia and Belgium up to a third of the population distrusts vaccines.   FILE – Anti-vaccination activists protest the decision of the Health Ministry and Education Ministry to not allow children without vaccination to go to school, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug. 22, 2019.And in Ukraine only about half of the population agreed that modern vaccines are safe.   European governments fear vaccine skepticism is only increasing because of social media agitation by extreme critics of vaccinations, or anti-vaxxers. Recent surveys have found that Britons are becoming increasingly questioning about the coronavirus vaccine. A majority in France, Germany, Italy and Britain say they are “likely” to get inoculated, but only a minority say they will definitely get vaccinated. And hesitancy is growing, according to a French Prime Minister Jean Castex, wearing a protective face mask, attends the questions to the government session at the National Assembly in Paris, France, Dec. 1, 2020.The chairman of the French Senate, Gérard Larcher, has called for mandatory inoculations, saying, “It’s not just for yourself, it’s a form of solidarity and protection for the whole of society.” But so far Macron has rebuffed the idea of compulsion, fearing it will prompt greater resistance. Fifty-nine percent of the French say they will refuse to be vaccinated, according to an opinion poll conducted for Journal du Dimanche.  Germany’s science minister, Anja Karliczek, said Tuesday vaccinations would be voluntary and that the same safety standards are being applied in the approval process for coronavirus vaccines as for other drugs. Emphasizing how standards have been maintained would likely gain the widest possible public acceptance for coronavirus immunization, she added.   Logistical challenges  Aside from the problem posed by vaccine refusal, European governments say they’re also trying to solve logistical challenges, from securing sufficient vaccines before the northern hemisphere summer ends, to having enough cold storage facilities for the vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna, when they start arriving after European regulators have approved them.  An employee of Cryonomic, a Belgium company producing dry ice machines and containers which will be used for COVID-19 vaccine transportation, pushes a medical dry ice container in Ghent, Dec. 2, 2020.The vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer needs to be stored and shipped at minus 75 degrees Celsius. Germany has already started gearing up to solve the storage challenge, with large freezers already rolling off production lines. Wales’ health minister, Vaughan Gething, warned Tuesday that the Welsh government doesn’t have any storage facilities as yet and will be unable to receive or store any vaccines allocated by the British government.  Other challenges include having sufficient staff available to administer vaccines, setting up data systems able to track the progress of immunizations and notifying people when to receive vaccinations and then when to return for a second booster shot. Germany is planning to set up inoculation centers that will be overseen by the governments of the country’s 16 regional states.   In France, immunizations will likely be left to family doctors and local pharmacists. In Britain, the national health service will be in charge, but it has been overstretched with rolling out tests and tracing the contacts of the infected, earning sharp criticism from lawmakers.  Government officials across Europe say they hope that they have learned lessons from the less than smooth supply lines and production shortages they experienced earlier in the year for ventilators, drugs and personal protective gear. Huge global demand led to bottlenecks, delays and transportation shortfalls. 

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