LONDON — On Tuesday, 334 days after the first reported Covid-19 death in China, Margaret Keenan, 90, became the first person in the world to receive a clinically approved vaccine.
It was a landmark moment in the global fight against the most destructive pandemic in 100 years. In approving and delivering the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, Britain is forging a path that will likely be followed by the United States and Europe in the coming weeks.
“I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against Covid-19,” said Keenan, who was given the vaccine at University Hospital in Coventry, in the English midlands.
“It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for,” said the grandmother of four, who turns 91 next week. “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 added, “My advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it — if I can have it at 90 then you can have it too.”
For many, seeing these shots injected into Britons’ shoulder muscles will come as a much-needed morale boost at the end of a hellish year globally — one that’s seen 1.5 million people killed, 65 million others sickened, and countless more subjected to pitiless economic hardship.
Symbolism aside, however, the reality is that even wealthy countries such as the U.S. and the United Kingdom face an enormous logistical challenge in trying to vaccinate priority groups — let alone everyone else.
“This feels like the beginning of the end,” professor Stephen Powis, the National Health Service’s national medical director, said Sunday ahead of the rollout. “But, of course, it is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will take many months to vaccinate everybody who needs vaccination.”
Americans will likely not be far behind, with the Food and Drug Administration expected to meet in days to discuss BioNTech-Pfizer’s application for emergency use authorization. Next week, the FDA will meet to rule on another vaccine, made by Moderna.
In Britain, with its population of some 67 million, the rollout marks the start of the biggest and most challenging vaccination program in the history of the publicly funded National Health Service.
It has purchased 40 million doses. But the first batch delivered from Pfizer’s plant in Belgium only contains around 800,000 — enough for 400,000 people taking two doses each.
It needs to be kept at supercold temperatures and handled with extreme care, so its rollout will be limited to 50 hospital “hubs” where there is specialist storage equipment.
First in line will be anyone over the age of 80 who is already in hospital. Nursing home staff and some front-line health care workers will also get the jabs, although exactly who makes the initial cut has already prompted heated debate in what has often been a vague and seemingly disorganized process.
It’s also been impossible to disentangle what should be a global fight from the impulses of national politics. Critics accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, which is simultaneously trying to negotiate a Brexit deal, of using its world-first vaccine announcement to promote nationalist or even jingoistic politics.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said last week that Britain’s rapid vaccine approval showed the U.K. is “a much better country” than the U.S., France and Belgium. And Health Secretary Matt Hancock has dubbed Tuesday as “V Day” — short for Vaccine Day, but also referencing “V-E Day,” which marked the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945.
Some experts worry that the news will cause people to become complacent, compounding an already tough winter of restrictions, economic pain and the grim routine of daily death tolls.
“No one can discount the importance of the hope that this rollout will generate,” Mukesh Kapila, a former adviser to the World Health Organization’s director general, said. “But it isn’t going to mean we can stop lockdown restrictions anytime soon.”
Meanwhile, Covid-19 is killing more people than ever — the U.S. averaged 1,826 daily deaths last week, one every 45 seconds. Europe’s cases have slowed following widespread lockdown restrictions, but still places such as the United Kingdom and Spain have among the highest numbers of deaths per capita in the world.
The vaccine will do nothing for the grieving relatives of those who died. It will not comfort business owners whose companies have already collapsed. And it won’t repay the lost wages of unemployed workers, nor ease the pitiless hardship endured by so many.
Supplies will be tight. Federal officials plan to ship 6.4 million doses within 24 hours of FDA authorization and up to 40 million doses by the end of the year. Most of these will go to the 21 million health care workers and 3 million nursing home staff in the U.S.
But the 0.3 milliliters of liquid contained in these syringes contain not just a groundbreaking modern medicine, but also a thread of hope in an unrelentingly bleak year.