It has been a good week for the Government’s vaccine taskforce, with headline after headline appearing to validate the UK’s immunisation strategy – despite scepticism overseas.
European leaders have been outspoken in their their disapproval of the UK’s vaccine rollout which saw UK regulators adopt an emergency authorisation process to get vaccines into people sooner and use a different timescale to that initially recommended by vaccine manufacturers.
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Some of their criticism, namely that of French President Emmanuel Macron who accused the UK of being unsafe in its approach, has been particularly pointed – even teetering on the verge of dangerous by claiming the British-made vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in those aged over 65.
President of the European Commission has continued to defend the EU’s decision not to issue emergency approval for vaccines and, instead, follow through with the entire regulatory process, which has delayed the bloc’s rollout.
“The UK has chosen the route of emergency marketing authorisations. We have chosen another, and we believe it is the right one,” she said, adding: “With a new vaccine, you inject a biologically active substance in a healthy person. So that’s an enormous responsibility.”
But, regardless of the veiled criticisms that may be coming from its neighbours, the UK is seeing an undoubted success thus far.
Positive progress in the vaccine rollout
The Government – somewhat accidentally – announced on Friday that it hoped to have vaccinated all over-50s by May.
The news, which was snuck out in a press release confirming local elections in May would go ahead, suggests the vaccination strategy would successfully have reach all nine priority groups by spring.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the Prime Minister was intending to set out a “precise timeline” when he publishes the Government’s roadmap for lifting lockdown restrictions in England later this month, but he confirmed the May target was correct.
The news comes days after Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced 10 million people in the UK have now received their first jab and reinforced the news that, so far, the rollout of the first doses of vaccinations was happening quickly and efficiently.
It also provided hope that, if this rate of vaccination were to continue without complications, lockdown measures may be lifted in the coming months.
One jab policy is working
The Government had another moment of vindication earlier in the week when data emerged suggesting that the one jab policy – which has seen the time between the first and second dost extended from four weeks to 12 weeks – was not impeding on the efficacy.
There was a degree of scepticism when, in January, the decision was taken to vaccinate as many people as possible with the protection offered by a single dose of the two-dose jabs, rather than giving fewer people higher protection with two doses.
But the new analysis from Oxford University showed the jab offers 76 per cent protection up to three months after just one dose.
On top of this the data suggested that delaying the second dose of the vaccine by up to 12 weeks could actually increase its efficacy – welcome news for those behind the Government’s decision to stretch the time limit between doses.
Successful against UK variant
Amid the optimism around the apparent success of the immunisation programme, experts have pleaded caution over the potential emergence of new and more dangerous Covid-19 variants.
Studies have shown that variants of coronavirus that contain the worrying E484K mutation could make vaccines slightly less effective, although they do appear to still offer good protection against illness and severe disease.
While both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs appear to work well against the variants currently dominant in the UK, scientists are working as quickly as possible to ensure preparedness for any possible variants.
There was reason to be hopeful after new research suggested the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is effective at fighting the new UK coronavirus variant, first discovered in London and the south east.
Oxford University researchers who developed the vaccine say it has a similar efficacy against the variant, compared with the original strain of Covid-19 against which it was tested when it was made.
These are the first findings regarding the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against new variants and the report has not yet been peer-reviewed.
But researchers are already looking at ways to modify the existing vaccines quickly and simply to protect against new variants, with teams in South Africa also looking at how effective the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is against the strain first detected there.
The UK Government also announced a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop vaccines against future variants of coronavirus.
No concerns over current vaccines
Finally the UK drugs regulator, which has been monitoring response to the vaccines currently being rolled out, reported they are extremely safe with the “overwhelming majority” of suspected side-effects being mild.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said its analysis of people who had received the vaccines so far suggested a reporting rate of three suspected side-effects for every 1,000 doses of vaccine administered – with the issues reported being similar to those for the annual flu vaccine.
Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed, chairman of the expert working group of the Independent Commission on Human Medicines, told a media briefing this would render the Covid-19 vaccines “extremely safe”.
It is the first time data on side-effects for jabs in use in the community has been scrutinised.
From December 9 to January 24, the MHRA received 22,820 reports of suspected side-effects, with the vast majority being mild and in line with most other types of vaccine – such as sore arms and mild flu-like symptoms.
The data showed severe allergic reactions were rare, with 101 reports of severe allergic reactions – associated with anaphylaxis or anaphylactoid reactions – for the Pfizer jab, and 13 for the Oxford vaccine overall.
The MHRA said that, as far as it was aware, all the people had recovered and it pointed out that anaphylaxis can be a very rare side-effect to many types of vaccines.
The regulator also received 69 reports of facial paralysis or weakness with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and six for the AstraZeneca jab and 107 reports of patients who died shortly after vaccination with the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, alongside 34 reports for the Oxford vaccine. The majority of these were elderly people or people with underlying illness.
— to inews.co.uk