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UK’s Covid vaccine programme on track despite AstraZeneca problems

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Dan Sabbagh
·5-min read
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<span>Photograph: Jacob King/EPA</span>
Photograph: Jacob King/EPA

The UK’s vaccination programme is expected to be effectively completed shortly after the United States’ this summer, and several weeks ahead of the EU, despite falling up to six weeks behind because of problems affecting its workhorse AstraZeneca jab.

Airfinity, which tracks vaccination programmes worldwide, forecasts that 75% of the population can be fully immunised in the UK by the first week in August, a level where herd immunity arguably begins to take effect – though variants and the potential need for booster jabs could impact this significantly.

That would be about a week and a half behind the US, which can reach the same level by late July, but six weeks ahead of the EU, which the firm estimates will achieve the same milestone towards the end of September.

“We expect the US to storm ahead. Production is going very well there and they are not exporting any doses,” said Matt Linley, a senior analyst with Airfinity. “The EU is also finally beginning to speed up too. But despite all the recent problems, the UK should still come out very well placed.”

Experts have repeatedly underlined the need for vaccine distribution to be global, including in developing countries, but there has been inevitable focus on frontrunners in the race so far. On Friday, Thierry Breton, the European commissioner leading Brussels’ vaccine taskforce, claimed that “like the fable of the tortoise and the hare”, the initially slow-moving EU vaccine campaign was accelerating as the UK rollout was beginning to flag.

The UK was the first country in the world to start vaccinating with the Pfizer jab last December, and with a seemingly healthy supply of AstraZeneca doses and an extraordinary mobilisation by the NHS appeared well ahead of the EU, which failed to build up supply and distribution capacity quickly.

Coronavirus vaccine rollouts compared

Already 31.8 million people, or at least 47.6% of the population, have had a first dose of the jab in the UK.

But Britain’s decision to offer 10 million under-30s a jab other than AstraZeneca because of concerns about links to rare blood clots could delay the programme by up to four weeks, although Airfinity said the impact would depend on when new vaccines are approved and become available. Another fortnight was lost when India held back 5m doses of the same vaccine, the firm estimates.

The Novavax jab, which is produced and bottled in the UK, is expected to be approved in weeks and supplies are being prepared in advance. But in the past week, ministers said that the single-shot Johnson & Johnson jab, which will rapidly speed up any immunisation programme, would not available until July though it will reportedly be approved by the UK regulator within days. It is expected to be available in the EU, where it has already been approved, from 19 April.

An average of just over 3m doses a day are being administered in the US – and 4m a week ago – with the country benefiting from significant local supply of the Pfizer, Moderna and the Johnson & Johnson vaccines. The yet to be authorised AstraZeneca vaccine may not be needed there.

Meanwhile, across the EU, intense efforts are being made to boost production and distribution as the 27-country bloc reels from a sluggish start worsened by production problems at AstraZeneca’s European plants.

Vaccine 75% projection

In the past week, the EU ensured that almost all doses made for the company in the Netherlands, over which the UK had made a claim, will stay in the EU. Britain had pressed unsuccessfully for a 50/50 split.

In Germany, GPs – who at the heart of the UK’s distribution success – were finally allowed to administer jabs this week, and in April daily doses per 100 people crept ahead of Britain for the first time since any vaccine became available, according to figures tracked by Our World in Data.

France, which began a lockdown amid rising cases at the end of March, has also closed the vaccination gap with the UK, although it is yet to forge ahead. This week, a plant in Normandy for bottling the Pfizer vaccine opened up, and the country plans to have seven jab production facilities operating by the end of the year.

Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The UK has benefited because it started earlier, and we are beginning to see other countries catching up. We also had an exceptional effort in the NHS, but you also have how long is that sustainable for.”

After the US, Chile is the next major economy to have made rapid vaccination progress: the South American country has also given 37.3% of its population a first dose largely with supplies of China’s Sinovac jab.

But there are concerns that the Sinovac vaccine has a relatively low 50.4% efficacy rate when it comes to preventing infections. Cases have been rising in Chile, amid concerns that the country was too quick to release lockdown restrictions and worries about the possible impact of new variants of the disease.

Earlier this week, Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said the case of Chile was “a good corrective” to the idea that a single vaccination programme can eliminate coronavirus quickly, as he warned that rapid success for UK was not assured.

Of particular concern in the UK is whether the South African variant becomes widespread as it is thought to be partially resistant to the AstraZeneca vaccine, which accounts for about 58% of jabs administered in the UK.