The UK said on Sunday that it has secured 2 million more doses of a promising coronavirus vaccine as it grows to launch the country’s most ambitious vaccination program in decades within a few days.
Britain has had Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak with more than 58,000 confirmed virus-related deaths. It now hopes to reach a more positive milestone by becoming one of the first countries in the world to start vaccinating its population against COVID-19.
The British government has agreed to buy more than 350 million doses of vaccine from seven different producers, if they prove to be effective, as it prepares to vaccinate as many of the country’s 67 million people as possible.
The Department of Health said on Sunday that it had increased its order for a vaccine developed by the American company Moderna from 5 million to 7 million doses, enough for 3.5 million people.
The modern vaccine is expected to be referred to the UK Medicines Agency soon to see if it is safe and effective. Two other vaccines – one developed by Pfizer and the German company BioNTech, the other by Oxford University and AstraZeneca – are already being evaluated by the regulator, the last step before they are rolled out.
The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine and 100 million doses of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine.
Hospitals in England have been told they can receive the first doses of the Pfizer shot as early as the week of December 7 if approved, the Guardian and the Financial Times reported. The US vaccination program also hopes to vaccinate some Americans in December.
The government says that frontline health care staff and nursing homes will be the first to be vaccinated, followed by the elderly, starting with those over 80 years of age. The plan is to work down age and risk groups until all 18 years and older have been inoculated.
Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said he “would not be too surprised if a statement was made within the next two weeks, possibly even as early as next week.”
Non-medical personnel, including volunteer first aiders, are already being trained to deliver the shots, which will be administered at about 1,000 community vaccinations and 40 to 50 large-scale facilities at arenas and conference facilities, according to a government document.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said officials hope to be able to vaccinate “the vast majority of people who need the most protection at Easter.”
Johnson wrote in the Mail on Sunday that the rollout of a vaccine could be “just a few days away.” But he said it would not be a quick end to the burdensome restrictions on business and everyday life that have been put in place to limit the spread of the virus.
“There are still long weeks and months ahead before we can be completely convinced that we can vaccinate enough people in the country and thus remove enough targets for the virus to beat the disease,” he wrote.
A four-week national shutdown in England is expected to end on Wednesday and will be replaced by a system of three levels of regional action. The vast majority of the country is set in the upper two levels, which means that most will be prevented from meeting friends indoors, pubs and restaurants are still facing restrictions and everything from large weddings to driving exercises is prohibited.
Pfizer and BioNTech say their vaccine is 95% effective, according to preliminary data. It must be stored at extremely cold temperatures of about minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit). The modern vaccine, which must also be stored at freezing temperatures, was also about 95% effective in clinical trials, the company says.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored at conventional refrigerator temperatures, making distribution much easier and also cheaper than its main competitors. However, some researchers have questioned gaps in the reported results.
Oxford and AstraZeneca reported this week that their vaccine appeared to be 62% effective in people receiving two doses and 90% effective when volunteers received half a dose followed by a full dose. They said half the dose was administered due to a manufacturing defect, and they are planning a new clinical trial to investigate the most effective dosage.
Complete data from the Oxford-AstraZeneca study are expected to be published soon and may answer some of the questions about the vaccine.
Openshaw said he would like to get a vaccine that is approved.
“If my doctor calls me and says ‘I have an approved vaccine,’ I really do not care what it is,” he told the BBC.