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U.K. Will Start Immunizing People Against COVID-19 On Tuesday, Officials Say

The U.K. will administer its first doses of COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, government and health officials say, raising hopes that the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech could help them tame the coronavirus.

"We're looking forward to the race starting on Tuesday," Chris Hopson, CEO of the U.K.'s NHS Providers, said Friday in an interview with the BBC. His organization represents hospitals and medical service groups.

The U.K. has received an initial batch of 800,000 vaccine doses, Hopson said via Twitter, making it "one of the first countries in the world to be able to start mass COVID-19 vaccination."

Politicians in Scotland and Wales also confirmed the Dec. 8 start date for COVID-19 vaccinations, saying distribution of the vaccine and plans for immunizations on a broad scale are moving ahead as expected.

The vaccine requires very special treatment, as it must be transported and stored at nearly -100 degrees Fahrenheit. It also can be moved only four times, Hopson added. And once people get their first dose, they must get a second shot three weeks later to complete the vaccination. Pfizer and BioNTech say it is 95% effective against the coronavirus.

"We've thoroughly tested our plans in Wales and expect to start vaccinating frontline staff and others from Tuesday," First Minister Mark Drakeford said in a briefing Friday. "We hope this marks a turning point and will put us on a long path back to normality."

With the first vaccine now ready for use, Drakeford added, "we hope that the next one will follow soon."

The U.K. has recently succeeded in bringing its number of new coronavirus cases down, after reaching alarming all-time highs in November. But a number of hot spots remain in many parts of the U.K., and restrictions on businesses and social activities are common.

The U.K. approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine just two days ago. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is slated to meet on Dec. 10 to consider granting regulatory approval.

In the U.S., officials are also working to send a massive amount of vaccine doses to the public, through Operation Warp Speed. Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the effort's chief adviser, said on Wednesday that he is "confident that we will be able to distribute enough vaccine to immunize 20 million people in the U.S. in December" — a figure that would then rise as more doses are received. First priority will be given to front-line workers and people with elevated health risks, he said.

The vaccine's arrival is an extraordinarily fast development in a field that normally takes years to develop new vaccines.

"Previously, the fastest time from initiation of a vaccine development effort to an approved product was four years," Dr. Richard Hatchett, the CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which develops vaccines against emerging infectious diseases, recently told NPR's Frank Langfitt.

The COVID-19 vaccine was developed less than a year after the release of viral genome sequences. "That's never been done before," Hatchett said. But he also said people should feel assured that the new drug is safe. Many of the time gains came through fast-tracking drug trials, and particularly through streamlining the drug-making process.

"They have sped up the development largely by, in parallel, making investments in manufacturing processes that ordinarily you might delay until you had data from your early stage clinical trials," Hatchett said. "They've taken the risks in the manufacturing process, but not taken risks with the clinical development."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.