The United Kingdom has become the first country to approve the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which has a lower cost and is easier to store than other vaccines that have already been approved.
Health secretary Matt Hancock hailed the approval of the critical vaccine on Wednesday saying it means the UK will be ‘out’ of the coronavirus crisis by the Spring – but also signalled that millions more people are being put into lockdown.
In a massive boost after the country racked up a record 50,000 daily cases on Tuesday, Hancock insisted a rapid rollout of the jab – developed by Oxford University and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca – now offers ‘high confidence’ the pandemic will be past within months.
The UK has ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine with supplies due to arrive today or tomorrow and the first jabs starting on Monday.
AstraZeneca boss Pascal Soriot said deliveries would start tomorrow, adding: ‘Vaccination will start next week and we will get to one million a week and beyond that very rapidly. We can go to two million.’
Top experts have warned ministers they need to ramp up weekly vaccination rates sevenfold to 2million by mid-January to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed this winter. Currently about 280,000 Brits are being inoculated each week.
The Oxford vaccine is the second vaccine that has been given the green light for public roll-out after the Pfizer vaccine – which has also been approved in the US. The UK was the first country in the world to approve the vaccine for public use.
A volunteer is administered the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which has been approved for use today
Pictured: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Number 10 Downing Street on Wednesday after the announcement that the vaccine had been approved. Johnson’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the approval of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine means there is now a ‘route out’ of the coronavirus pandemic
Two doses are needed to get long-term protection, but Hancock revealed that the stocks could be spread more widely than anticipated as the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has advised that the gap between the first jab and the second jab can be extended from four weeks to 12 weeks.
The same rule will be applied to the Pfizer jab already approved in early December – raising the prospect that more Britons could be given a single dose soon to ease the pressure on the NHS from rampant infections.
Studies have shown that the vaccine has an average efficacy rate of 70 percent, with this number rising to 90 percent when half a dose was followed by a full dose.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has been calling for all available stocks to be used for single doses, with the booster follow-up being delayed.
However, Mr Hancock dodged saying whether he believed the numbers being vaccinated could be scaled up to the two million a week scientists say is needed.
And alongside the positive news he delivered a stark warning that the country still faces a tightening of the brutal lockdown Wednesday.
More than two-thirds of England is expected to be under the harshest level of curbs after a review of the system is announced in the House of Commons this afternoon – but there are demands for an even more draconian national squeeze that could see secondary schools shut and possibly curfews.
‘It is going to be a difficult few weeks ahead,’ Mr Hancock said in a round of interviews. ‘We are going to have to take further action.’
A researcher in a laboratory at the Jenner Institute, working on the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which the Government says will help see all adults vaccinated if needed
The UK has ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine with supplies due to arrive today or tomorrow and the first jabs starting on Monday. Pictured: Illustrative image
Pressure has mounted on the Government to act as hospitals across England warned of increasing strains on services due to Covid-19 patient numbers, which have reached their highest levels during the pandemic, while a record daily high of 51,135 further cases were reported on Tuesday, along with 414 deaths.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, which has been described as a ‘game changer’, was given the green light by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘The Government has today accepted the recommendation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to authorise Oxford University/AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine for use.
‘This follows rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data by experts at the MHRA, which has concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness.’
AstraZeneca said it aimed to supply millions of doses in the first quarter of next year as part of an agreement with the Government to supply up to 100 million doses.
HOW DOES THE OXFORD VACCINE WORK?
The vaccine – called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 – uses a harmless, weakened version of a common virus which causes a cold in chimpanzees.
Researchers have already used this technology to produce vaccines against a number of pathogens including flu and Zika.
The virus is genetically modified so that it is impossible for it to reproduce in humans and cause infection.
Scientists have transferred the genetic instructions for coronavirus’s specific ‘spike protein’ – which it needs to invade cells – to the vaccine.
When the vaccine enters cells inside the body, it uses this genetic code to force the body’s own cells to produce the surface spike protein of the coronavirus.
This induces an immune response because it makes those cells look like the virus, which effectively works as a training aid for the immune system to learn how to fight the virus if the real thing gets into the body.
In clinical trials Oxford’s vaccine was 62 per cent effective at preventing a coronavirus diagnosis if given as two doses, and 90 per cent when one half dose was given followed by a further full dose.
The difference, experts say, may be because a smaller dose the first time allows the body to create a better picture of what the virus will look like before it attempts to launch a full-scale attack, as with a full dose, giving quality first and then quantity later.
Its chief executive Pascal Soriot said: ‘Today is an important day for millions of people in the UK who will get access to this new vaccine. It has been shown to be effective, well-tolerated, simple to administer and is supplied by AstraZeneca at no profit.’
In a statement, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘This is a moment to celebrate British innovation – not only are we responsible for discovering the first treatment to reduce mortality for Covid-19, this vaccine will be made available to some of the poorest regions of the world at a low cost, helping protect countless people from this awful disease.
‘It is a tribute to the incredible UK scientists at Oxford University and AstraZeneca whose breakthrough will help to save lives around the world.
‘I want to thank every single person who has been part of this British success story. While it is a time to be hopeful, it is so vital everyone continues to play their part to drive down infections.’
And Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and chief investigator of the Oxford trial, said: ‘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.’
Data published in The Lancet medical journal in early December showed the vaccine was 62 percent effective in preventing Covid-19 among a group of 4,440 people given two standard doses of the vaccine when compared with 4,455 people given a placebo drug.
Of 1,367 people given a half first dose of the vaccine followed by a full second dose, there was 90 percent protection against Covid-19 when compared with a control group of 1,374 people.
The overall Lancet data, which was peer-reviewed, set out full results from clinical trials of more than 20,000 people.
Among the people given the placebo drug, 10 were admitted to hospital with coronavirus, including two with severe Covid which resulted in one death. But among those receiving the vaccine, there were no hospital admissions or severe cases.
The half dose followed by a full dose regime came about as a result of an accidental dosing error.
However, the MHRA was made aware of what happened and clinical trials for the vaccine were allowed to continue.