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Covid-19 vaccines: meet the people pulling together to make our lives coronavirus-safe

Not just the UK’s route to normality, the Covid-19 vaccination programme is also a collaborative effort like never before 

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10 February 2021
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rom the scientists developing effective vaccines to the warehouse workers ensuring stock is safely and securely distributed to where it needs to be, the UK vaccination programme is an impressive collective effort spanning the four nations. 

Millions of people have already received their first dose, and the UK is currently vaccinating at a rate that is more than double per person, per day than any other country in Europe. 

And with a total of 407 million doses already secured for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland from seven different manufacturers, the UK Government is continuing to work towards a route back to normality. 

Vaccinating against Covid-19 is at the centre of the Government’s plan out of the pandemic – and it’s a widespread collaboration involving people across a wide-range of industries. 

Here, five people explain how they’ve been involved…

David Lawrence, acting chief financial officer, Valneva biotech facility, Livingston

David Lawrence

David Lawrence, works for Valneva, which is currently trialling a new Covid-19 vaccine on 150 volunteers at sites in Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle and Southampton. 

It is different from the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines in that it is an inactivated whole-virus vaccine. 

“We take the whole virus and we basically grow that virus, we purify and harvest that virus, and then at a certain stage in the process we inactivate or kill it,” he says. “You’ve removed any risk of viral replication. So what you then need to do is to make sure that while it’s very safe it’s effective.”

Valneva has now stepped up to full-scale manufacturing process which they’ll replicate and multiply over the course of 2021. “The next wave of clinical trials will probably be 3-4,000 people,” Lawrence adds. “We’re confident the vaccine is going to be safe and effective. We still have to choose the optimal dose, when we get that data from the first clinical trial.”

The focus is now on finishing the vaccine development and ramping up production so that by the end of this year Valneva will have the capacity to deliver 60 million doses.

Ruth Fleming, operations officer, Brecon Beacons

Ruth Fleming

In her day job, Ruth Fleming, works in population data science at the Swansea University. However, away from the campus, she is also a Royal Navy reservist.  

Deployed as part of Operation Rescript, the largest UK peacetime military initiative to support the UK Government’s Covid-19 response, Fleming served as an operations officer at Joint Military Command Wales in the Brecon Beacons. 

Her role was to look at all local MACA (Military Aid to the Civil Authorities) requests and make the arrangements for them to happen.

“On a daily basis, that meant making sure the team was fit and well, and ensuring that the team were where the Government wanted them to be,” Fleming explains. “We were part of planning for a number of matters – including the vaccination rollout.”

This included arranging accommodation, food, travel and social distancing precautions for soldiers setting up the testing and vaccination centre in Merthyr Tydfil.

“I was desperate to do my bit,” she adds. “My husband and I had a chat about it and despite having two young kids, we knew he would support me.”

Major Charlie Martell, full-time reserve service officer, Jersey

Charlie Martell

Major Charlie Martell headed up a team of Army reservists from the Jersey Field Squadron who built a Covid-19 vaccination centre at Fort Regent on the Channel island.

“In December, we had the nod that the Government required more assistance to set up a vaccination centre,” explains Martell, officer commanding for the operation. “Overall, building the Fort Regent vaccination centre took 12 days and 20 people.”

The team constructed six vaccination pods, each of which has capacity for five vaccinators. “Our task was to set up all the booths for people to be vaccinated in. We were working from when the site opened at 7am to when it closed at 7pm.”

The centre is able to handle up to 1,500 vaccinations a day – and is aiming to deliver vaccines to over 7,000 people throughout January.  

“The numbers [on Jersey] are going back down in the right direction now,” Martell says. “If we can stay on track, everyone on the island should be vaccinated by June or July. What we have achieved in Jersey with the reservists is the perfect response, because we could respond very quickly.”

UK vaccine facts

The UK Government has now made available more than £6 billion in total to develop and procure Covid-19 vaccines.  

It has invested over £300 million in securing and scaling up the UK’s manufacturing capabilities to be able to respond to this pandemic.

Over 10 million people have received the first dose, higher than any other country in Europe.

Roisin Coulter, director of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, Northern Ireland

Roisin Coulter

Roisin Coulter works for the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust which provides acute and community health and social care services to 440,000 people in the eastern sector of Northern Ireland. “Normally I’m a director of planning performance and informatics within the Trust,” she explains. “In mid-December, we were advised that the first Covid-19 vaccine had received approval. Within a week we were asked to mobilise, to start to roll out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.”

The Health and Social Care Trust established seven regional vaccination centres. In the South Eastern Trust they have been working seven days per week, 12 hours per day delivering over 1,000 vaccinations each day. “Our teams have been unbelievable in response to the vaccination programme. We’ve been supported by local councils and [the] police service to roll out the first dose of the vaccine to as many people as possible in Northern Ireland – that is our priority.”

The aim is that everyone over the age 65 will have had the opportunity to take the vaccine by the end of February. “The great thing about the vaccine is this gives us hope. It gives our staff confidence. This is our way out of Covid-19. It gives us light at the end of the tunnel. I’m leading a team I’m so proud of, it’s an absolute privilege to be able to push this at scale. I’d encourage everyone to take the opportunity to have vaccine to protect themselves.”

Professor Paul Heath, director of the Vaccine Institute at St George’s, University of London

Paul Heath

The Novavax vaccine is a different type of technology to the Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. 

Involving around 15,200 participants across the UK, the major trial is looking at the effects of the vaccine across a broad spectrum of people from a range of backgrounds and age groups.

“The Novavax vaccine is what’s called a subunit protein adjuvant vaccine, so in many ways it’s in fact very similar to vaccines that we’ve used before – perhaps the best example is the influenza vaccine,” says Professor Paul Heath, chief investigator of the Novavax trials taking place at St George’s, Tooting. 

“Currently in phase 3, the next step will be to examine the results once a certain number of people in the trial have had the Covid-19 disease. There will be an interim analysis to look and see whether there’s any difference between the numbers of disease cases in the vaccinees and those who received the placebo. This is a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial.”

It will then be possible to see whether there is a clear difference between the vaccinees and the placebo recipients to help determine its efficacy. 

“Once that’s been done, and ensuring that the safety of the vaccine is clear, the data will be presented to the regulator, the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency], who will consider whether they want to provide an emergency license for this vaccine,” he adds.

How vaccines work

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■  Vaccines are carefully developed to prevent disease, rather than treat it. They work by teaching your immune system how to defend itself against attack

■  Vaccines are created by weakening or deactivating the virus so it will not cause disease. Once this is introduced to the immune system, it trains the body to recognise the virus and create protective antibodies

■  These antibodies can then defend against possible harm from Covid-19

■  It’s much safer for your immune system to learn how to protect itself through a vaccine, rather than through catching the virus

■  As with other viruses, the best way to protect against Covid-19 is to gently train the body to protect itself

To find out more, visit gov.uk/coronavirus