The coronavirus jab developed by Oxford University and the pharmaceutical giant Astrazeneca has been approved for use in Britain, paving the way for a rapid rollout of the government’s vaccine programme.
The jab, which has been shown to offer up to 90 per cent protection against Covid-19, was approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency this morning.
“The government has today accepted the recommendation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to authorise Oxford University/Astrazeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine for use,” a spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said.
“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.”
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, described the news as “fantastic”. “Brilliant to end 2020 with such a moment of hope. The coronavirus vaccine is our way out of the pandemic – now we need to hold our nerve while we get through this together,” he 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.”
He also told Sky News: “I am now, with this approval this morning, highly confident that we can get enough vulnerable people vaccinated by the spring that we can now see the route out of this pandemic. It is going to be a difficult few weeks ahead.”
The government has already ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine, enough to vaccinate 50 million people. Astrazeneca aims to supply millions of doses of the vaccine in the first quarter of next year as part of its agreement with the government.
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. However, it offered 90 per cent protection in a group of 1,367 people given a half first dose followed by a full second dose. The overall Lancet data set out the full results from clinical trials involving more than 20,000 people.
Pascal Soriot, chief executive of Astrazeneca, said today: “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.”
He also told The Sunday Times this month that further data submitted to the regulator showed that the vaccine could match the 95 per cent efficacy displayed by the Pfizer/Biontech and Moderna vaccines. “We think we have figured out the winning formula and how to get efficacy that, after two doses, is up there with everybody else,” he said.
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.
The development comes only a day after the government announced that Britain had already received enough batches of the Pfizer-Biontech jab to maintain the pace of its current vaccination programme. Scientists have said that the programme would have to speed up significantly to reduce the burden on the NHS.
Weekly vaccination rates must rise sevenfold from the levels achieved so far to stop pressures on intensive care units swamped with Covid-19 patients surpassing those seen during the peak of the first wave, ministers were told.
Neil Ferguson, a government adviser, told the BBC yesterday that a target of two million doses of vaccine being administered every week was “what we need to be getting to, very quickly indeed”.
UK vaccination rates have been running at about 280,000 a week, according to the most recent NHS figures.
Professor Ferguson was giving his backing to a study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which predicted that Tier 4 restrictions would have to be maintained across England, along with school closures in January and the two million vaccinations a week, in order to limit the burden on intensive care wards to within the levels seen in the spring.
The study said that there was no evidence that the new variant was associated with increased disease severity. However, because it appears to spread far more quickly, it has the potential to create larger epidemic waves with more cases. “It may be necessary to greatly accelerate vaccine roll-out to have an appreciable impact in suppressing the resulting disease burden,” it said.
Margaret Keenan, a 91-year-old grandmother, became the first person to receive a second dose of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine yesterday. The booster shot was given at Coventry’s University Hospital, three weeks after she made history by becoming the first person in the West to be vaccinated against Covid-19 outside a clinical trial.
A spokesman for Boris Johnson said that 22 consignments of the Pfizer jab had been delivered by December 25 and that vaccinations were on track to progress at the rate of manufacture. “We have sufficient doses to maintain our vaccination programme as it continues to expand,” he said.
The Pfizer vaccine must be kept in ultra-cold conditions of minus 70C and can be moved only four times before it must be used. This presents a difficult logistical hurdle, since by the time the vaccine reaches Britain it has already been moved three times since leaving Pfizer’s factory in Belgium.
This week Pfizer said deliveries to eight European countries had been held up by a day because of a “problem in the loading and shipment process” at the factory in Belgium, believed to be related to temperature control.
By contrast, the Oxford vaccine can be kept at normal fridge temperatures, allowing it to be handled in the same way as other widely used drugs.