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Tiny Belgian town is now at the center of a global vaccine race

The first doses of the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine are on their way to the United Kingdom, the earliest western country to grant emergency authorization. The vaccine is manufactured by the U.S pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, but most of the 1.3 billion shots Pfizer hopes to deliver in 2021 will be produced in the tiny factory town of Puurs, Belgium. Special correspondent Lucy Hough reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The first doses of the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine are on their way to the United Kingdom, the first Western country to grant emergency authorization.

    The vaccine, manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, is yet to be approved in the U.S., it's already making its way to the U.K. from a factory in a tiny town in Belgium.

    Special correspondent Lucy Hough reports.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Trucks are carrying the temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccine to the U.K. from Pfizer's plant in Puurs, Belgium, where it is being manufactured on a massive scale. It's a process which began hours after the vaccine was authorized by U.K. health regulators; 800,000 doses will arrive in the coming days.

    The first shipments mark a milestone for scientists at BioNTech, who partnered with Pfizer, and are now at the forefront of a medical and scientific breakthrough.

  • Sean Marett:

    We started this program at the end of January. And just seeing the beginning of November actual product leaving the factory, destined for use in people to start protecting them against this virus, was a really great feeling.

  • Lucy Hough:

    The vaccine was manufactured on the outskirts of this quiet town in Northern Belgium. Up until now, Puurs, population 17,000, was best known for its notoriously strong Duvel beer. Puurs' mayor is proud of his town's pharmaceutical success.

  • Koen Van Den Heuvel:

    We say now that the hope of the world is here in Puurs, and we are going to save the world. From here, you can export products worldwide in a fairly quick way. And that's our greatest advantage, our strategic asset.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Pfizer began its operation here in the mid-1960s, when postwar investment flooded into Belgium. It now employs one in 10 people in the town, and has recruited extra numbers to cope with demand caused by the pandemic.

    Since the summer, the work force here has been concentrating on the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine. In the plant behind me is a sports stadium-sized facility packed with freezers ready to store hundreds of thousands of doses at minus-94 degrees, ready to be shipped out to the world.

    Locals are stunned to find themselves at the center of a global vaccine race. The Puurs plant will produce most of the 1.3 billion shots Pfizer hopes to deliver in 2021 globally. But living next door to a major pharmaceutical hub doesn't guarantee better access to a shot.

  • Marc Varnes:

    The only thing that's good for me or for this town is that they give a lot of job opportunities for the people around here.

  • Luc Lelievre:

    We realized from the other day people are coming from all over. We had some Russians last week, some people from France. So, it's like the whole world discovered Puurs all of a sudden. And, yes, we're very proud of all of it, very happy.

  • Lucy Hough:

    A few miles south of Puurs, Brussels Airport is preparing for its role as a key distribution hub. A United Airlines flight has already flown from here to Chicago with the first mass air shipment in preparation for impending approval. The Pfizer vaccine requires extremely cold storage temperatures, others, standard refrigeration.

    Pfizer has already slashed its original rollout targets due to obstacles in the cold chain. With each vaccine having different requirements in terms of transportation, packing and storage, global distribution will be no easy feat.

  • Nathan De Valck:

    Well, maintaining the right transport temperature to protect the packaging against temperature shocks is extremely important throughout the whole logistical supply chain.

    So, in order to do that, we need the right type of infrastructure. And we have more than 30,000 square meters of temperature-controlled rooms at the airport.

  • Lucy Hough:

    The U.K.'s decision to approve Pfizer's vaccine has put pressure on other countries' health agencies to follow suit. A decision is expected from the European Medicines Agency and the FDA within days.

  • Sean Marett:

    We have been manufacturing doses abreast in our factories before approval, with the process that will be approved, in order to ensure we can deliver almost immediately to these trading blocs or countries.

  • Lucy Hough:

    Pending authorization, the U.S. and Europe share a hope to begin administering the first vaccines by the end of this year, prioritizing front-line health workers and the most vulnerable.

    The U.S. expects to receive a total of 40 million doses from Pfizer and competitor Moderna by the end of this year. That's enough to vaccinate 20 million people.

    The vaccines are one of four that could be rolled out globally by spring 2021, offering hope for an end to the pandemic that has already claimed 1.5 million lives.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lucy Hough in Puurs.

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