The first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Malta on Saturday morning, ahead of a nationwide vaccination programme that will start on Sunday.

A Cessna plane carrying around 10,000 doses of the vaccine, which is manufactured by Pfizer and BioNTech, landed at Malta International Airport at 10.40am. The vaccine doses were shipped from a Pfizer factory in Puurs, Belgium.

Around 600,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine - enough to inoculate 300,000 people - will be shipped to Malta over the coming weeks and months, Health Minister Chris Fearne said on Saturday, with Malta having secured more doses than it had originally negotiated.  

The vaccine procurement is part of an EU-wide effort to ensure that all member states obtain vaccine doses at the same time. 

Members of the Armed Forces of Malta have been roped in to ensure the secure transfer of vaccine shipments.  

Up to 20,000 vaccines a week

Vaccinations will begin on Sunday, with a nurse at Mater Dei Hospital scheduled to be the first person in Malta to be inoculated. Hospital staff will be the group of people to receive jabs, followed by residents and staff at homes for the elderly. 

Although only a limited number of people will be vaccinated on Sunday, efforts will be ramped up over the coming weeks and increased tenfold from 2,000 people a week to 20,000. Fearne said the plan was to secure herd immunity by the summer of 2021. 

Prime Minister Robert Abela (centre) and Health Minister Chris Fearne (right) stand behind boxes of the vaccine. Photo: DOIPrime Minister Robert Abela (centre) and Health Minister Chris Fearne (right) stand behind boxes of the vaccine. Photo: DOI

People must receive two doses of the vaccine, 21 days apart, for it to be fully effective. Vaccination is voluntary and free-of-charge. 

General public likely to start receiving vaccine in April - Fearne

Health Minister Chris Fearne said he expected the general public to start receiving vaccine jabs around April, although that schedule was subject to change as it depended on the licensing approval of vaccines made by other manufacturers, such as Moderna and AstraZeneca. 

Apart from its 600,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, Malta has more than one million doses of other vaccines on order. Fearne hinted that any excess doses would be made available to neighbouring countries which have not yet secured a vaccine supply. 

A private plane carrying 10,000 vaccine doses landed at Malta International Airport at around 10.40am. Video: Matthew Mirabelli

90 per cent effective

Clinical trials have indicated that the vaccine is more than 90 per cent effective at preventing COVID-19 infection. However, shipping and storing the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine involves significant logistical challenges, as it must be stored at extremely low temperatures reaching -70 degrees Celcius. 

Joint procurement

Malta has obtained the vaccine through an EU-wide joint procurement mechanism which allowed EU member states to pool their resources and jointly buy vaccine doses after the European Commission approved it on December 21, on the advice of the European Medicines Agency.

All EU member states will start their vaccination programmes on Sunday. 

The EMA is expected to recommend approval of a second vaccine, manufactured by Moderna, in the first week of 2021. 

"The COVID19 vaccine has been delivered to all EU countries. Vaccination will begin tomorrow across the EU," EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter. 

"Vaccination is the lasting way out of the pandemic." 

'Road to normality begins today' - Abela

Speaking at a press conference at MIA, Prime Minister Robert Abela said that the vaccine’s arrival heralded hope.

"The road back to normality starts today," he said.  “We used all the country’s resources to protect lives and livelihoods. It was the best investment we could have made." 

He drew comparisons between Malta’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic to those of neighbouring countries, “where going out of the house without permission can get you fined.” 

He however warned people not to let their guard down. 

"This is a great day, but it does not mean that we can relax measures or let our guard down," he said. 

Fearne heralded a "historic" day and said Malta had been among the first to push the EU to jointly procure vaccine doses. 

He expressed regret for the 203 people who died while infected with COVID-19 in Malta and said health workers had done all they could to limit the harm. 

Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci urged people to get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

"We all have a responsibility to take the vaccine, not just for ourselves but for everyone else," she said, as she warned that COVID-19 cases were likely to rise in the coming days.

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