British officials celebrated Monday as the country accelerated its Covid-19 immunization campaign will the rollout over 500,000 doses of the newly-approved vaccine developed by pharma giant AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, with health secretary Matt Hancock hailing it a “pivotal moment” in the fight against the virus while the country battles against a new surge and potentially more infectious variant.
At 07:30 GMT, Brian Pinker, an 82-year-old dialysis patient, received the world’s very first shot of the vaccine.
Pinker, who received the vaccine in Oxford’s Churchill Hospital, said he was “really proud” that the vaccine had been developed locally.
The U.K., which has ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine, was the first country in the world to approve the vaccine for emergency use in late December.
Pinker will require a second dose of the vaccine in order to be fully protected against the disease — ordinarily this shot would be given 3-4 weeks after the first, but the U.K. government has recently decided to accelerate its vaccination campaign and delay this to 12 weeks in order to give as many people as possible their first dose, which conveys partial immunity.
“Through its vaccine delivery plan the NHS is doing everything it can to vaccinate those most at risk as quickly as possible and we will rapidly accelerate our vaccination program,” Hancock said.
Announcing the rollout, Hancock said: “I am delighted that today we are rolling out the Oxford vaccine – a testament to British science. This is a pivotal moment in our fight against this awful virus and I hope it provides renewed hope to everybody that the end of this pandemic is in sight.”
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is considered one of the best hopes for beating Covid-19 around the world. Though it appears to be less effective than other leading vaccines including from Moderna and Pfizer, it is much more accessible than its competitors, especially in less wealthy nations, being both cheaper and capable of being stored and distributed in standard channels. In late December, the U.K. became the first country to approve it for emergency use. India approved it in early January.
What Don’t We Know
Work is still underway to determine the optimum dose, timing and efficacy for the vaccine. The decision to delay the second dose by 12 weeks is a complex one on which experts disagree. On dosage and efficacy, trials show that it can induce a “robust” immune response in older adults, a key demographic, but a mistake in late-stage clinical trials raised questions as to the best way to administer the vaccine. The usual dosing regimen, two full doses, showed a much lower efficacy than a half dose followed by a full dose. Researchers could not explain the phenomenon, which indicated an efficacy of over 90%, and regulators have not approved this regime for use citing a lack of data. Trials are underway to learn more.
What To Watch For
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has already approved vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech for emergency use. Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser for Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. program to develop vaccines at record-breaking speed, said that he expected an approval in April, pending data from clinical trials.
South Africa is also contending with what appears to be a highly infectious variant of Covid-19. Speaking on British radio, Hancock said he believed it to be “even more of a problem than the U.K. new variant.”