With the awaited coronavirus vaccine inching closer to reality and sparking fresh hope around the world, Fiona Galea Debono looks at what we know so far in the run-up to its arrival in Malta.

Who will be eligible for the first batch of COVID-19 vaccinations?

So far, it is the frontliners – including nurses, pharmacists, police and civil protection officials, who come into contact with the vulnerable – and persons aged over 80, who will be the first to be given an appointment for their vaccination. But this could still change and include more categories.

Whether it will also include teachers – as the union of professional educators has insisted – and other vulnerable persons, with a Schedule V document, is yet to be seen.

The first group can expect a letter in the post that will inform them of the date, time and place so that queues and crowding at clinics will be avoided.

Who is next in line?

Once these groups are covered, other vulnerable and younger people will be eligible for the vaccination.

I’m 50 and I have asthma. Am I eligible to get the first batch of vaccine?

This depends on whether Schedule V drugs will be included on the first list.

When are the vaccinations scheduled to start?

The first group could start being vaccinated against COVID-19 in the first weeks of 2021, but this could be even earlier. Whatever the case, the clock will start ticking as soon as the vaccines arrive and the race to distribute them will start immediately.

The European Medicines Agency is currently assessing testing data provided by manufacturers to ensure the vaccine is safe for consumption, a process that should be concluded by the end of December.

In case of any issues, the process could be delayed by a few weeks. 

Is the vaccine taken once, or is the dose split?

It is split over two doses, priming and booster, in almost all vaccines expect for one – Janssen.

How much will it cost me to get inoculated?

The vaccination will be free of charge, provided by the public authorities.

Do I have to take it even if I do not want to?

The vaccine is not mandatory, however, it is important to take it, according to the health authorities.

They have urged people to get inoculated against the virus and are confident the take-up will be high, based on the way the population has always been receptive to vaccinations.

What if I have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past? Do I still need the vaccine?

The vaccine will also be given to people who have already had the infection because they can lose their immunity.

There have been cases of recurrent infection and natural contagion does not necessarily infer immunity.

What vaccine is Malta getting?

Malta and other EU member states have drawn up an agreement with at least six companies that are producing a COVID-19 vaccination, with the one most likely to be approved first being Pfizer’s, although the options remain open.

How many vaccines have been allocated to Malta?

The government has secured 500,000 jabs of the vaccine manufactured by Pfizer, meaning enough have been booked to cover the entire population during the first few months of the year.

A batch of the jab had been secured in advance to avoid a situation where it would end up without one, as had happened during the H1N1 pandemic.

But again, the numbers can still vary at this stage – and could even be more.

Where and how will the COVID vaccine be stored?

Cold storage facilities needed for the Pfizer vaccine – it must be kept at -70 degrees Celsius, a temperature much lower than that required for other jabs – are already in place to cater for the staged batches as they arrive.

Different companies require different temperatures.

Can I let down my guard once vaccination starts?

COVID-19 precautions would need to continue while vaccination starts.

The scientific aim of the first lot of injections is not to create herd immunity, but to prevent the deaths and complications that are currently being experienced. Herd immunity starts when everyone has been vaccinated.

By when, roughly, is it estimated that all the population is vaccinated?

This would depend on the supply chain of the vaccine, but what is certain is that it would be rolled out as fast as possible.

How long does protection last?

This depends on the particular vaccine, but it will probably be a yearly inoculation once the first priming and booster vaccines are administered.

Latest developments

Germany’s BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer have applied for EU regulatory approval to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for their COVID-19 vaccine, raising hopes that the first jabs could be administered in a matter of weeks after large-scale tests showed their vaccine was 95 per cent effective against COVID-19 and triggered no serious side effects.

UK regulators on Tuesday said that they had approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use and said they expected rollout to begin "next week". 

Pfizer and BioNTech expect to manufacture up to 50 million doses of their vaccine globally this year, and up to 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021.

A fellow frontrunner in the global vaccine race, US biotech company Moderna, has also sought emergency regulatory approval for its COVID-19 shot in both the US and Europe.

The two vaccines have been developed at breathtaking speed as part of an unprecedented effort to end a pandemic that has infected more than 62 million people worldwide and killed more than 1.4 million.

But while the latest developments are good news and a big step in the right direction, they should not give the public a false impression that the pandemic is over. People must not stop following mitigation measures and need to hang on for a while longer.

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