Intended for healthcare professionals


Covid-19: How the UK vaccine rollout delivered success, so far

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 18 February 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n421

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  1. Chris Baraniuk, freelance journalist
  1. Belfast
  1. chrisbaraniuk{at}

Chris Baraniuk explains the elements that have made the UK’s vaccination programme a front runner globally and describes the hurdles that lie ahead

It looks like a world beating performance—the United Kingdom has administered more covid-19 vaccine first doses per 100 people (19) than any other nation of comparable population size.1

At the time of writing, 12 million people—roughly as many as the entire population of another vaccine front runner, Israel—have received their first dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Daily reports indicate that, on some days, more than half a million people have received a dose.

The government seems reasonably well placed to hit its target of giving 15 million people their first dose by mid-February. But the full story of the vaccination programme shows bumps in the road as well as successes.

Head start

The UK became the first country in the world to approve a covid-19 vaccine for emergency use in early December. But the groundwork was laid nearly a year earlier, when the Department of Health and Social Care reportedly began planning a mass vaccination programme before confirmation of the first covid-19 case in the UK.2 Meanwhile, the Oxford University scientists who would go on to develop a vaccine began meeting to discuss it in January 2020, before the World Health Organization (WHO) had even come up with the name covid-19.3 They were already working on a prototype vaccine against the coronavirus that causes MERS and reasoned that they would be able to adapt the chimpanzee adenovirus vector they were using to confer protection against SARS-CoV-2.

Just five months later, in June 2020, the UK signed a contract for 100 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.4 A separate deal securing access to 30 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was announced the …

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