Large numbers of community pharmacies have not been involved in the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine programme, so far – but they could be key players in an annual rollout of the vaccine, according to new research.

The research study (PERISCOPE), which has not yet been peer-reviewed, looked at how community pharmacies could help to deliver the vaccine to the population on a large scale, and offered recommendations for policymakers on how to get pharmacies engaged in Covid vaccinations.

Speaking to the Pharmacist earlier this week (10 February), Dr Ian Maidment, the lead researcher of A rapid realist review of community pharmacy support for the public health agenda during the Covid-19 pandemic and future health emergencies, explained that although it may be easier to vaccinate people in mass vaccination centres 'at the moment', this may not be a sustainable long-term method.

He said: ‘Mass vaccination centres are likely to be expensive and logistically more difficult to run. If we have to vaccinate the population annually, the country has to involve community pharmacies to some degree because of their accessibility and convenience for most people.'

Dr Maidment’s comments come after Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, said on the Andrew Marr show last week (7 February) that an annual vaccine against variants of the virus could be necessary.

‘We [will] see very much probably an annual [Covid-19] vaccine - just like we do with the flu - where you look at what variant of the virus is spreading around the world, you rapidly-produce a variant of vaccine, and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation,’ Mr Zahawi said.

‘Perception of pharmacies must change’

As it stands, NHS England and Improvement (NHSE&I) has only commissioned around 200 pharmacy-led sites to deliver the vaccine. This is because the majority of community pharmacies in England do not fit the necessary criteria to become a vaccination site.

Dr Maidment said that the perception of pharmacies must change if we are to see more pharmacy-led sites commissioned in the future.

‘We must start seeing pharmacies as more clinical rather than retail,’ he explained.

‘And for this to happen, pharmacies must focus, much more, on their clinical role rather than their retail role. Pharmacies could then focus on vaccinating people, which could take up a lot of their time (and space) - especially if we have to vaccinate the adult population against Covid annually on top of providing flu vaccinations.’

‘After all, what is more important, selling shampoos or vaccinating against Covid?' he added.

A major sea change

The researchers explained that when given the opportunity, permissions and resources, community pharmacies are able to offer and provide critical advanced services. In the past community pharmacies have been able to support vaccination given their accessibility, convenience and capacity to meet the needs of the local community, they added.

The research paper advised that policymakers would have to ensure that community pharmacies had a ‘clear role’ in public health and clarify pharmacists’ legal and professional liabilities in delivering the vaccine if pharmacies are to become the right location for an annual jab.

Front line community pharmacy staff should also be given a role in designing the Covid-19 vaccine service specification and be given adequate resources and funding to run it efficiently, the paper added.

Dr Maidment concluded: ‘Pharmacy needs to go more clinical anyways, this could be a major sea change.

‘People still say community pharmacy is struggling for a role, and vaccinating people against Covid for years to come could be it a key part of it.’