The British government appointed a vaccine minister on Saturday as it prepares to vaccinate millions of people against the coronavirus, which could begin in a few days.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said conservative lawmaker Nadhim Zahawi will oversee the country’s largest vaccine program in decades.
The UK Medicines Agency is currently evaluating two vaccines – one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, the other by Oxford University and AstraZeneca – to see if they are safe and effective. The Guardian newspaper reported that hospitals have been told they could receive the first doses of the Pfizer shot in the week of December 7, if approved.
The UK says frontline health care workers and nursing homes should be the first to be vaccinated, followed by the elderly, starting with people over 80.
The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, enough for 20 million people, and 100 million doses of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine.
In total, the British government has agreed to buy up to 355 million doses of vaccine from seven different producers, as it prepares to vaccinate as many of the country’s 67 million people as possible.
Decisions on which, if any, vaccines to approve will be made by the independent drug authority.
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 Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored at conventional refrigerator temperatures and is 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.
The UK government hopes that a combination of vaccines and mass testing will put an end to the need for business and everyday restrictions it introduced to curb the spread of coronavirus. Britain has had Europe’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak with more than 57,000 confirmed virus-related deaths.
The prime minister said this week that officials hope to inoculate “the vast majority of people who need the most protection at Easter.” But he warned that “we must first navigate a harsh winter” of restrictions.
A four-week national shutdown in England is due to end on Wednesday and will be replaced by three levels of regional action restricting business, travel and socializing. The vast majority of the country is located in the upper two levels.
Johnson faces opposition to the actions of dozens of lawmakers from his own Conservative party, who say the economic damage outweighs the benefits to public health.
But Prime Minister Michael Gove said the restrictions were “gloomy” necessary to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed this winter.
Gove wrote in The Times of London and said that there are currently 16,000 coronavirus patients in British hospitals, not far below the April peak of 20,000. An increase in infections would mean that coronavirus patients “would displace everyone except emergencies. And then they too, “he said.
“However, if we can keep the level of infection stable or, even better, fall and persevere until January and February, we can be sure that vaccination will pull the plug on the problem,” Gove wrote.