United Kingdom

Frozen packaging could mean Covid-19 vaccine delay in care homes because deliveries cannot be split

Most care home residents face a longer wait for the vaccine due to a ban on splitting deliveries into smaller batches.

The cold conditions needed to transport the vials mean they cannot be delivered to Britain’s 411,000 care home residents individually, even though they are at the top of the priority list for the jab.

This is because the Pfizer vaccine comes in packs of 975 doses – and the UK regulator has not yet given permission for these to be split up.

Delivering these full packs to care homes could result in hundreds of precious vials being thrown away.

Most care home residents face a longer wait for the vaccine due to a ban on splitting deliveries into smaller batches in frozen packaging. Pictured: Pfizer's 'freezer farm' storing finished COVID-19 vaccines, in Puurs, Belgium

This is because the vaccine must be stored in extremely low temperatures. It can only spend days at normal fridge temperatures, and even less time at room temperature. 

As a result, anyone mishandling the packs of jabs could ‘spoil’ the vaccine at a time when every dose is desperately needed.

Hopes remain high for a rival jab developed by Oxford University, which is much easier to store and transport.

VISITORS FACING POSTCODE CHAOS 

Relatives desperate to be reunited at Christmas with their loved ones in care homes face a postcode lottery over whether or not their wish will be granted.

The Department for Health guidance says each care home resident will be able to nominate two loved ones to see them twice a week after taking a single test.

But councils and care homes are free to impose their own rules and yesterday some said they were still deciding whether or not to apply more stringent measures.

Liverpool Council became the first to disregard the guidance, launching a significantly more restrictive regime. 

It said only one visitor was allowed and that they would have to take two outside tests, followed by another at the care home before a visit.

Martin Green, of Care England, said the Government needed to ‘get a handle on this nonsense’ of differing rules.

Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam yesterday described the vaccine developed by Pfizer and German firm BioNtech as a ‘complex product’, adding: ‘It’s not a yoghurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in multiple times – it’s really tricky to handle.’

The first people to receive the jab from 50 hospital hubs next week will be the over-80s, care home staff and others identified as priority groups by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

Its Covid-19 chairman Professor Wei Shen Lim said care home residents were also at the front of the queue because they are so vulnerable to the virus.

‘The JCVI’s advice is that every effort should be made to supply vaccines and offer vaccinations to care home residents,’ he said. ‘Whether or not that is actually doable is dependent on deployment and implementation.’

Vic Rayner, executive director of the National Care Forum, said the organisation was ‘waiting to receive a clear strategy’ to get the vaccine ‘through the care home door’.

She said: ‘The vaccine has been billed as life-saving, and it must be afforded to those who need it most... not fall at the first hurdle because of the absence of a thought-through logistical plan.’ 

Professor Martin Green of Care England, which represents homes across the country, said: ‘In light of this, we need the Oxford vaccine to be approved as soon as possible... so care home residents can be protected from Covid-19.’

NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said growing numbers of GP clinics will begin vaccinations as jabs become available, adding: ‘Then, if the independent regulator – as we expect it will – gives approval for a safe way of splitting these packs of 975 doses, the good news is that we will be able to start distributing those to care homes.’

The Pfizer vaccine must initially be stored at minus 70C (- 94F). Tests suggest that it remains stable at room temperature for just six hours.

Ben Osborn, Pfizer’s managing director in the UK, stressed that ‘at the point of administration and deployment by the NHS, our vaccine can be stored under normal refrigerated temperatures for five days’.

He added: ‘That gives us the flexibility to reach the target populations identified this morning by the JCVI over the months ahead.’

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