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UK poised to start COVID vaccine distribution

By Julian Shea in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-11-30 01:34
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The United Kingdom could see novel coronavirus vaccines being given out as early as Dec 7 after the Financial Times reported that its independent regulator was ready to give approval to the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine in the next few days.

If it happens, such a move would see the UK become the first western country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine with such high efficacy. Russia approved a vaccine in August, but it was not based on as much data as this one.

In the ordinary course of events, vaccines would also need to be approved by the European Medicines Agency, of which the UK remains a member until the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of the year, but in emergency situations such as this, the UK's Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has power to issue temporary authorization.

On Friday the government also wrote to the medical regulator to ask if it could review another vaccine, created by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. Initial enthusiasm for this potential breakthrough, however, has been dampened by confusion over the consistency of the dosage given to people during the trial process.

"If these vaccines are approved, the (National Health Service) stands ready to roll them out as soon as safely possible," Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier in the week.

The Pfizer treatment requires two separate injections, and the vaccine would need to be stored at around minus 70 degrees Celsius, with a fridge life of five days before it can be administered.

It had been thought that the likely first recipients of the vaccine, distributed through GPs and NHS hospitals, would include the staff and residents of care homes, but the Guardian newspaper reports that the sensitivity of the vaccine means transportation could affect its effectiveness, which may impact how it can be used.

"We've been told to expect the vaccine on Dec 7 and plan to start vaccinating our staff all that week," one senior hospital executive told the Guardian.

"However, it's the Pfizer vaccine we're getting, so it can't be moved again once it gets to us and we then have to use it within five days, as that's its shelf life.

"The original plan was to do care homes first. But once the vaccine gets to us it can't be used in the community, so only NHS staff will be able to have it, at least initially."

Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, which represents the UK's largest care home providers, was unhappy at the reported change of priorities.

"We had a commitment (from the government) that care home residents would be first in the queue," he said. "The reason is they are most susceptible to death from the virus. That commitment has to be honored.

"(The government) knew this was the vaccine and they knew it required little movement so why did they make the announcement it was care home staff and residents first?"

On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed business minister Nadhim Zahawi to take responsibility for the national deployment of vaccine, and the government has now increased its order for the United States-derived Moderna vaccine from five million doses to seven million, which would be enough for 3.5 million people.

Kate Bingham, head of the government's Vaccine Taskforce, called Moderna "an important addition to our portfolio" and welcomed the increased order.

"Since its inception in June, one of the most important stated aims of the Vaccines Taskforce has been to secure access to the most promising vaccines across a broad range of technologies, thereby increasing the chances of having a safe and effective prevention as soon as possible against COVID-19," she said.

Meanwhile, ahead of a Parliamentary vote on England leaving national lockdown to enter a regional three-tier system of restrictions, Johnson has written to Conservative MPs, who are divided on the issue, saying that any new regulations would have what he called a "sunset clause," or expiry date, of Feb 3.

Several Conservative MPs are angry at the prospect of new regulations, and think the public should be trusted to self-regulate, but Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said they should think about how the NHS would be dealing with other seasonal issues in the coming weeks and avoid exacerbating the situation.

"You need to take the precautions now to ensure that the NHS doesn’t get overwhelmed at what is always its busiest time of year," he said.

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