Approval of Oxford vaccine hailed as game-changer in Covid fight
Posted on December 30th, 2020

Courtesy The Times (UK)

Astrazeneca chief promises 2 million doses a week

The Covid vaccine developed by Oxford University and the drugmaker Astrazeneca has been approved for use in Britain, with government advisers saying that a single shot could achieve 70 per cent protection.

The jab was authorised by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) this morning amid mounting concerns over the new fast-spreading coronavirus strain and rising hospital admissions. The first injections are due on Monday.

The Oxford vaccine requires two shots for maximum protection but the strategy for the immunisation campaign has been changed to prioritise giving as many vulnerable people as possible their first dose. Three weeks after getting a first shot of the Oxford vaccine people should have 70 per cent protection against symptomatic Covid, government scientific advisers said today.

Whitehall officials regard the Oxford jab as a game-changer because it should be relatively easy to distribute and available in significant volume. Unlike the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine, which must be stored at ultra-low temperatures, it can be kept in a normal fridge. At least four million doses of the Oxford vaccine are believed to be available immediately for use, with more waiting to be decanted into vials.

Ministers are confident that the NHS vaccination programme can be scaled up to two million a week and beyond but are bracing people for a slow start in the coming days as each batch has to be approved by the MHRA.

Fewer than a million doses are expected to be available to the NHS when vaccination begins on Monday, although several million further have been manufactured.

While Boris Johnson has repeatedly been criticised for overpromising, the NHS is aiming to avoid ambitious vaccination targets in the hope of exceeding people’s expectations. However, the government has committed to be able to vaccinate as quickly as supplies can be manufactured.

Pascal Soriot, the chief executive of Astrazeneca, this morning pledged to deliver at least two million doses a week, which will come on top of supplies of the Pfizer vaccine. Scaling up would happen very rapidly in the first and second week of January”, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

The vaccination will start next week and we will get to one million a week and beyond that very rapidly,” he said.

We can go to two million. In January we will already possibly be vaccinating several million people and by the end of the first quarter we are going to be in the tens of millions already.”

Mr Soriot also said he was confident that the vaccine would work against the new variant of the virus. Our colleagues at Oxford are working very intensively with the NHS to test that and confirm this but our belief is the vaccine will work,” he said.

The authorisation is for two full doses of the Oxford vaccine to be given, with a gap of between four and 12 weeks between them. In clinical trials, that dosing regimen was 62 per cent effective in preventing symptomatic Covid and none of the volunteers who received it developed serious disease.

After being warned that vaccinations must accelerate to ease the burden on the NHS, the government also announced a shift in its immunisation strategy. The priority will now be to give as many high-risk individuals as possible a first dose of either the Oxford vaccine or the rival jab from Pfizer, administration of which began three weeks ago.

The government believes that this will maximise the number of people who get a level of meaningful protection” from one dose. The recommendation was made by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), an independent panel of experts.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said that everyone would still receive their second dose and that this would be within 12 weeks of their first. The second dose completes the course and is important for longer term protection.

From today the NHS across the UK will prioritise giving the first dose of the vaccine to those in the most high-risk groups. With two vaccines now approved, we will be able to vaccinate a greater number of people who are at highest risk, protecting them from the disease and reducing mortality and hospitalisation,” the spokesman said.

The JCVI’s independent advice is that this approach will maximise the benefits of both vaccines. It will ensure that more at-risk people are able to get meaningful protection from a vaccine in the coming weeks and months, reducing deaths and starting to ease pressure on our NHS.”

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told Times Radio that the approval of the Oxford vaccine would allow the UK to exit a pandemic situation” by the spring. Now that we have two vaccines being delivered, we can accelerate,” he said. How fast we can accelerate will be determined by how fast the manufacturers can produce. But what I can tell you is that I now have a very high degree of confidence that by the spring enough of those who are vulnerable will be protected to allow us to get out of this pandemic situation.”

He added that enough vaccine doses had been ordered to cover the entire adult population of the UK and that clinically vulnerable people and health and social care workers would be prioritised. After that, this vaccine will be available for the under 50s,” he added.

Boris Johnson described the news as a triumph for British science” and said that the country would now move to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible”.

The British Medical Association said radical action” was necessary to speed up vaccine delivery, in particular to health and social care staff working directly with patients, and that it should take priority over other services.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chairman, said: Doctors taking part in the campaign, whether that’s in hospitals, GP-led sites or mass vaccination centres want to get on with the rollout and this needs support and investment while GPs will need to have the flexibility to deprioritise other services to focus on this vital work.

Vaccination will play a decisive role in beating the pandemic, and the speed at which we can both reduce pressure on the NHS and return society to any semblance of normality hinges on the success of this campaign.”

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society said that high street pharmacies should be used to deliver the Oxford vaccine, given that it could be stored in a normal fridge.

Gino Martini, chief scientist at the society, said: Pharmacists are skilled in vaccination, having provided flu jabs and travel vaccines for years. This means the NHS has a ready-made workforce waiting to play its part to scale up the Covid vaccination programme and speed up delivery of the vaccine to at-risk groups.

As trusted healthcare professionals, pharmacists can also help build confidence in the vaccine and increase its uptake. Pharmacies have been open throughout the pandemic and their convenient locations mean and opening hours mean much better access for patients to this new vaccine.”

There were calls for NHS staff to be given Covid-19 jabs as soon as possible. While some have already received a first dose, not all trusts have been involved in the programme and unions say access has been patchy and not based on who is at highest risk.

Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: Frontline NHS and care staff must be vaccinated in the next couple of weeks as a priority as the current pressures on the NHS will be impossible to withstand without a fit and protected workforce.”

The government has ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, enough to vaccinate 50 million people.

Data published in the The Lancet this month shows that the vaccine was 62 per cent effective in preventing Covid-19 in a group of 4,440 people given two standard doses.

The estimate of 70 per cent protection three weeks after one dose comes from unpublished data, Wei Shen Lim, chairman of the JCVI, said this morning.

The Lancet data suggested that 90 per cent protection might be possible in people given a half first dose followed by a full second dose. However, Professor Lim said that these results were judged not to be robust enough to be depended on.

Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and chief investigator of the Oxford trial, said this morning: The regulator’s assessment that this is a safe and effective vaccine is a landmark moment, and an endorsement of the huge effort from a devoted international team of researchers and our dedicated trial participants.

Though this is just the beginning, we will start to get ahead of the pandemic, protect health and economies when the vulnerable are vaccinated everywhere — as many as possible as soon possible.”

Daniel Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, who was not involved with the vaccine development, said: This is the fruition of decades of ground-breaking vaccinology and hard graft by the team at the Jenner in Oxford.

It couldn’t be more timely and desperately needed. At a time when we see the pandemic accelerating beyond our control, a rapid, efficient vaccination programme with good population coverage is our only way out.

This vaccine induces good levels of neutralising antibodies and T cells.

With two vaccines now in the roll-out and very substantially more doses, it starts to look realistic that this could be achievable by the spring or early summer.”

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