UK launches vaccine towards Oxford-AstraZeneca because it battles the surge in Covid
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses for a photo with a vial of the vaccine candidate Covid-19 from the University of AstraZeneca / Oxford.
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LONDON – UK has started rolling out the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. This is another step in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
The country's National Health Service (NHS) is the first in the world to use the push after it was approved for use in the UK by the Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) last week.
The approval and use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine are seen as a boon in the race against Covid-19 as it is cheaper than the alternatives developed by Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna.
In addition, unlike other vaccines, it can be stored, transported, and handled under normal refrigeration conditions (2 to 8 degrees Celsius or 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least six months.
When the vaccine was approved last week, AstraZeneca said it intended to "deliver millions of doses in the first quarter" as part of its agreement with the UK government to deliver up to 100 million doses in total.
As a two-dose vaccine, the deal means that up to 50 million people in the UK, with a population of around 66 million, could be vaccinated.
In a statement on Monday, the UK government said there are now more than half a million doses available, "with an additional ten million doses to be delivered over the coming weeks and months once batches have been quality checked by the MHRA."
The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine complements a Covid-19 vaccination program launched by the UK back in December, when the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine launched with two doses. According to the government, more than a million people in the UK have already been vaccinated with the Pfizer shot. It was announced on Monday that more than 730 vaccination sites have been set up in the UK and that hundreds more will open this week.
As with the Pfizer vaccine, the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot will be introduced first for priority groups, including residents and employees of nursing homes, people over 80, and health and care workers, and then for the rest of the population in order of age and risk, including those who are extremely vulnerable clinically.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "This is a pivotal moment in our fight against this terrible virus and I hope it gives everyone renewed hope that the end of this pandemic is in sight".
Another vaccine may not come early enough for the UK, which is battling an increase in infections, largely due to a mutation in the virus that is making it easier to spread. According to a record by Johns Hopkins University, the UK has now registered over 2.6 million cases of the virus and over 75,000 deaths.
On Monday, Hancock told Sky News that the UK cannot roll out the vaccine any faster than supply allows. However, experts agree that the UK needs to step up its vaccination program as soon as possible. Last week, a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded that the UK must vaccinate two million people a week to avoid a third wave of the coronavirus outbreak.
On Saturday, The Times newspaper anonymously quoted a "key member of the Oxford AstraZeneca team" as saying the drug company would increase production so that it would produce two million pounds each week by mid-January.
This goal is achievable, but challenging, says Dr. Andrew Freedman, Infectious Disease Reader at Cardiff University School of Medicine. He told CNBC on Monday that the speed of the rollout will depend on "the availability of the vaccine, vaccine production, but also its distribution and establishment of new vaccination centers and the recruitment of new vaccines".
"It's a goal, but it's realistic and I think it can be achieved by the end of the month," he told CNBC's Squawk Box Europe.
The most vulnerable are first vaccinated with shots initially taken in hospitals before the bulk of the shipments are sent to hundreds of doctor's offices and nursing homes later in the week.
Somewhat controversial, the MHRA, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) and the UK's four chief medical officers agreed to move the gap between the first and second dose of coronavirus vaccines that are now being given to the public . The change in strategy was to get most people protected in no time.
The British Medical Association said the decision to postpone the post-dose of the Pfizer vaccine and to cancel appointments for patients who had already been given the second dose was "grossly unfair" for thousands of high-risk patients. However, experts like Freedman said that with a vaccine like the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate, a longer gap between doses could increase the effectiveness of the sting.
The government last week insisted that "the priority should be to give as many people in risk groups as possible their first dose, rather than delivering the required two doses in as short a time as possible".
"Everyone will continue to receive their second dose within 12 weeks of the first. The second dose completes the course and is important for longer term protection," he added.