The Chief Medical Officer last night reassured the public that vaccines should still be effective against the new ‘mutant’ strain taking hold across Britain – amid signs the game-changing Oxford jab will soon be approved.
Providing positive news on a grim day in the fight against coronavirus, Professor Chris Whitty said there were no indications that vaccines developed so far will be ineffective against the new strain. It means protecting the country from Covid-19 in a matter of months with widespread vaccination should still be possible.
Last night, Boris Johnson said 350,000 people had already been vaccinated and there are hopes that figure will hit half a million in the next day or two.
By Christmas the number of people being inoculated is expected to reach 200,000 a day, with the NHS vaccinating people on Christmas Day itself, as well as Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.
Professor Chris Whitty said there were no indications that vaccines developed so far will be ineffective against the new strain
In another positive development, Government sources said the Oxford vaccine is likely to be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) by the end of this month, paving the way for the first recipients to get the jabs before New Year.
Speaking during last night’s press conference, Prof Whitty said that while there were ‘theoretical reasons’ to suspect some genetic mutations might affect the effectiveness of vaccines, the ‘working assumption at the moment … is that the vaccine response should be adequate for this virus [variant]’.
Scientists believe it is highly unlikely that a small number of changes to the virus’s spike protein, which is where the jabs concentrate their firepower, would render them useless.
Meanwhile, it is hoped the Oxford jab, produced in conjunction with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, will be approved within 10 days. That will revolutionise the inoculation programme as, unlike the Pfizer drug already in use, it does not need to be frozen and can be handled like a normal flu vaccine.
Boris Johnson said 350,000 people had already been vaccinated and there are hopes that figure will hit half a million in the next day or two
It should also soon be available in much larger quantities than the Pfizer vaccine which has suffered from supply problems.
Those two key benefits of the Oxford jab will open the door to the NHS using a network of mass vaccination centres at stadia, conference centres and other venues, now being prepared across the country.
Smaller GP surgeries will be able to join in too, while the Oxford jab will enable more mobile vaccination teams to go into care homes.
The vaccination campaign, which started almost two weeks ago, has not been without teething troubles.
Manufacturing problems at Pfizer’s Belgian plant meant an early target of the UK getting 10 million doses before New Year was abandoned and even now officials refuse to say how much has arrived. The UK has ordered 40 million doses.
Those two key benefits of the Oxford jab will open the door to the NHS using a network of mass vaccination centres at stadia, conference centres and other venues, now being prepared across the country. Pictured: A vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University
Ministers initially refused to say how many people had been vaccinated. When the figure was finally published last Wednesday – 137,897 after eight days’ vaccinating– there was surprise it was not higher.
Stories of the £15-a-shot Pfizer vaccine going to waste, and patchy distribution across the country, have also arisen.
Once a GP practice receives its batch of 975 doses, delivered in a frozen box at -70C, all must be used within three-and-a-half days of thawing. Between thawing and administration they must be kept refrigerated.
At Harborough Field Surgery in Rushden, Northamptonshire, hundreds of doses are believed to have been ruined due to a fridge failure, delaying vaccinations. The surgery apologised, saying the Pfizer vaccine ‘poses a number of complex logistical challenges’.
Ian McCubbin, manufacturing lead for the UK Vaccine Taskforce, said the ‘vast majority’ of the 100 million Oxford doses ordered by the Government will be made in the UK. In what he called a ‘quirk’, initial doses will come from Germany and the Netherlands.
However, one big question remains: which Oxford jab dosing regime will the MHRA approve? Trials in 9,000 volunteers showed two full doses – one then another 28 days later – produced a 62 per cent protection rate.
Trials in 9,000 volunteers showed two full doses – one then another 28 days later – produced a 62 per cent protection rate. Pictured: A volunteer is administered the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University
But in another trial, where recipients got a half dose then a full dose, the protection rate was 90 per cent. But this trial contained just 2,700 people, none over 55.
Scientists stress that both dosing regimes for the Oxford jab appears to offer good protection against serious illness, as no volunteer who received it has needed hospital treatment. The MHRA last night refused to say which dosing regime it was assessing, citing ‘commercial confidentiality’.
The Government’s hopes of speedily inoculating tens of millions, made ever more urgent by the new strain, rest largely on these two vaccines. However, it has also ordered seven million doses of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, which has just been approved for use in the US.
Murdoch, 89, has jab on NHS at his local GP surgery
Rupert Murdoch has received the Covid vaccine at his local GP surgery – ignoring fears stoked up over the jab on his US TV channel Fox News.
The media tycoon, who was born in Australia but is now a US citizen, was taken to the NHS site in Henley, Oxfordshire, in a convoy of Range Rovers from his nearby £11.25 million mansion, where he has been isolating with wife Jerry Hall.
Rupert Murdoch has received the Covid vaccine at his local GP surgery – ignoring fears stoked up over the jab on his US TV channel Fox News
Mr Murdoch, 89, said in a statement: ‘I strongly encourage people around the world to get the vaccine as it becomes available.’
On Thursday, Tucker Carlson, host of one of the highest-rated programmes on Fox News, suggested on the show that people should respond ‘nervously’ to the vaccine’s ‘marketing campaign’.
Other public figures in the UK to have had the vaccine include Bake Off judge Prue Leith.