By Sam Portillo | News Editor
According to new data from Public Health Wales, 62 percent of people in the top four priority groups have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, meaning the country is on track to meet its mid-February vaccination target to 100 percent coverage.
Following advice from UK medical boards, the Welsh Government is prioritising delivering one dose to all vulnerable individuals, before recalling patients for a second jab to enhance protection. Around 80 percent of over-80s and a similar proportion of health workers – demographics identified as high-risk by scientific advisers – have now received a first dose.
In the first weeks of the vaccination effort, First Minister Mark Drakeford received widespread criticism for suggesting that the Welsh Government needed to hold back vaccine supplies so the “system can absorb it”. His assertions that the vaccination programme was a “marathon” and “not a sprint” only exacerbated anxieties around the management of the project.
Ministers gave various reasons for the initial pace of the rollout. Education Minister Kirsty Williams MS cited logistical challenges, arguing that it would take time to build an effective delivery and distribution system. Health Minister Vaughan Gething cited Wales’s lack of appropriate infrastructure, such as storage units that can keep the Pfizer supplies at the -70°C temperature they need, while the First Minister himself pointed towards the comparative efficiency of Wales’s rollout and how they were keeping supply wastage to a minimum.
Furthermore, the vaccination data in Wales can be up to five days out of date by the time it is published by Public Health Wales. Welsh figures are therefore inherently, to some extent, behind England’s, for example, which releases its data in “real-time”. Officials have claimed this is due to the thorough checking procedure that takes place between the actual vaccination and publication of data, verifying that patients have not been double-counted, for example.
So far, the Pfizer-BioNTech model accounts for around three-quarters of all vaccines that have been delivered in Wales. Unlike conventional vaccines, it contains a sample of coronavirus mRNA – the virus’s equivalent of DNA – which triggers the human immune system to build coronavirus antibodies as though actually infected. This version of the vaccine must be kept at -70°C to preserve the mRNA, and only remains usable for three days after being taken out of storage.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine however is more conventional in its composition, containing a deactivated sample of the virus which is unable to reproduce, and therefore ‘infect’ the body, but still instructs the immune system to produce antibodies. As other models of the vaccine are approved, the rate at which Wales and other UK nations can distribute the vaccine will increase.
On the other end of the process, the destination of the vaccine is another factor that has been said to affect speed. In recent weeks, Wales has opened more GP surgeries, mass vaccination centres and mobile units where patients can receive the vaccine, effectively widening the frontline. In earlier weeks, too, vaccinators were primarily working towards care home residents who were largely unable to travel to a distribution centre, and so the NHS faced logistical challenges getting the jab to them. In recent weeks, an increasing number of health and social care workers have been receiving the jab – people of all ages, who are more readily able to travel to a distribution centre.
In the past week, Wales has floated near the top of the global leaderboard for rates of vaccination, and above its UK neighbours, who are also doing well. While the newfound speed is assuring, the effort is far from over: only around 1 in 5 adults in Wales have received a jab, and every approved vaccine to date requires two for proper protection. The effort is far from over.