Cardiff, Wales (CNN) -- Dr. Venkat Chandra has spent the past nine months on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and his parents have been missing him. The crisis has made it impossible for him to travel from the United Kingdom to India, where they live, and he hasn’t seen them in more than a year.
On Tuesday morning, he got one step closer to being able to visit them after he was vaccinated against Covid-19.
The 46-year-old accidents and emergency doctor at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, was one of the first people in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine outside of clinical trials.
Chandra and 224 others got the jab inside a Cardiff gymnasium that has been transformed into a makeshift vaccination center on the first day of the mass immunization program across the UK.
“It’s still a long way to go, but hopefully everybody comes and gets the vaccine, to get the country moving,” he said. It’s been tough for him not to be able to visit his parents in Chennai. “In India, the situation has been even worse, so it’s been difficult for them.”
The rollout of vaccines to Britons, less than a week after the country became the first to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use, is the culmination of months of research, logistics planning and clinical tests. The pharmacists, nurses, health care workers and volunteers working in the vaccination center have been preparing for this moment for weeks.
But for Chandra, the actual vaccine felt like just a little scratch on the arm. “It was quick and not that painful,” he said, adding that he will be encouraging his own patients to get the vaccine as soon as possible. Those who got a first dose today will need to return for a second in around three weeks’ time.
The nurses administering the jabs in the converted gymnasium were drafted in from hospitals and other health care facilities in and around Cardiff. Among themselves, they nicknamed Tuesday “V-Day.”
Sharon Chapman, a 60-year-old breast cancer specialist nurse, volunteered to be part of the program. She got a week-long training that included everything from how to administer the new vaccine to reassuring patients about the safety of the vaccine.
“I like to think we’re injecting hope into people,” she said. “After the terrible year we’ve had, we are looking forward into the future now with this vaccine.”
The hope is that if enough people take up the vaccine, herd immunity will be achieved and life will return to normal. But for now, the usual strict coronavirus safety protocols must be observed.
Taped markings on the gym floor indicate the safe distance between individual chairs in the waiting area, slotted in between the usual boundaries of the basketball court. Two basketball hoops hang on the wall, just above the five booths where the vaccines are being administered. Dozens of medical aprons hang where the players’ bench would normally be.
The vaccines are stored under strictly controlled conditions in a fridge in a separate room. Two pharmacists, working in tandem, are tasked with unpacking each vial, diluting the vaccine in a sodium chloride and splitting it into five doses that are put into individual syringes. It’s a new process for them. Normally, vaccines arrive already diluted and ready in the syringes.
But because the vaccine is so new, there isn’t the capacity yet to manufacture and fill the individual syringes. So it’s up to Rhys Oats, a 34-year-old senior pharmacist, and his colleagues to do this on site. They’ve been preparing for weeks, doing simulation runs with vials filled with frozen water, testing the distribution and storage system.
“We had the first delivery of these vaccines in Wales here yesterday … it was a momentous thing,” he said.
The demand for the vaccine is high and only a tiny fraction of those who want to get it can — which is why the Welsh government has asked CNN to keep its exact location confidential. The first wave includes only frontline health and social care workers and people aged 80 and over.
Michael Fox, a doctor at a pediatric emergency unit in Cardiff said he felt very grateful to be able to get the vaccine. “It is a bit surreal,” he said.
“The things I was thinking about on my journey in were how grateful I am for all the work that has been done in the scientific community, all the volunteers who have put themselves forward for the vaccine trials, and that hopefully, this will be the turn in the tide against Covid-19.”
The 32-year-old doctor has another, more personal reason, to be grateful for the vaccine. He and his wife are expecting their first child in March.
“There’s a slightly increased risk for ladies who are pregnant if they get Covid, so I am just hoping that once enough people are vaccinated and if Covid-19 is under control, then I’ll be able to be in for the delivery with a slightly more normal experience for my wife,” he said.