Coronavirus: Could the UK go quicker with its vaccines?


Britain could dish out its Covid vaccines faster to bring cases down and ease lockdown rules sooner if it overcame speed bumps in the rollout, experts say at the country hurtles towards it 15million people target for Monday.

The UK has vaccinated an average of 431,000 people per day over the past seven days, reaching a staggering three million individuals, but has failed to return to its one-day record of 598,000, which was hit on January 30.

Experts are anxious for the NHS to keep up the pace and continue accelerating once past its original target, with only a matter of weeks before the demand for second doses begins to soar. 

Around 2.2million people had had their first jab by January 10 and the Government promised them a second no later than three months afterwards, meaning they will all need a top-up before April 10 so supplies will start to be eaten up in March and soon need to hit the same pace that first doses are achieving now.

Ministers have repeatedly blamed ‘lumpy supply’ and the need to wait for manufacturers for holding back the UK’s rollout, with both jab suppliers – Pfizer and AstraZeneca – having to reorganise their factories in January.

But there are issues with the rollout which is also holding the NHS back from hitting its maximum pace – it has already proven it can do almost 600,000 per day but only gets close to the number on Saturdays. 

Some GP surgeries are not offering vaccines on Sundays, potentially because they lack a proper incentive on top of spending all week working as normal, critics say, and other centres have been forced to shorten their opening hours because of a lack of demand for appointments.

This low demand may be a result of the Government being too ‘rigid’ about its priority list, said the Francis Crick Institute’s Sir Paul Nurse. Vaccines have for the last month only been offered openly to people over 70, NHS staff, care workers and people who are shielding, but a shrinking pool of them may be leaving valuable slots unfilled. 

The NHS today opened up the programme to everyone over the age of 65 – the fifth priority group – as it prepares to continue the rollout beyond next Monday’s target of completing the top four groups.

And a postcode lottery, in which vaccine supplies are being diverted to areas with slower uptake to help them catch up, may be leading to a slowdown in areas that steamed ahead at the start of the rollout, reducing the overall pace. 

The Adam Smith Institute think-tank said it was concerned the rollout had ‘hit a wall’ and that the UK has the power to double the speed of its vaccination to six million people per week if it fires on all cylinders.  The institute’s James Lawson told MailOnline: ‘We cannot be complacent and need a full war effort to keep boosting supply and distribution, ideally reaching 6million doses per week.’

‘This is possible through further involvement of the armed forces, wider use of pharmacies, mobile vaccinations centres to reach remote communities, and much more, including better engagement with minority groups who are currently under-vaccinated, addressing their concerns.

‘We should also be looking at bringing new supplies to the UK as soon as possible, such as the recently approved Moderna vaccine. The faster we do this, the faster we can end this miserable crisis, protecting the vulnerable and supporting the UK to ease restrictions.’

Here, MailOnline takes a look at the factors holding the vaccine rollout back from its full potential: 

The UK has vaccinated an average of 431,000 people per day over the past seven days but has failed to return to its one-day record of 598,000, which was hit on January 30

Falling demand may be a result of the Government being too 'rigid' about its priority list, said the Francis Crick Institute's Sir Paul Nurse, with only people in the top four priority groups eligible for vaccines so far - although the NHS today widened it to over-65s in group five

Falling demand may be a result of the Government being too ‘rigid’ about its priority list, said the Francis Crick Institute’s Sir Paul Nurse, with only people in the top four priority groups eligible for vaccines so far – although the NHS today widened it to over-65s in group five

SUPPLY: Only two vaccines available, both with manufacturing limits 

Ministers have repeatedly said the supply of vaccines is the ‘rate-limiting factor’ of Britain’s mission to vaccination all of its adult population as fast as possible.

Although they have refused to say how many vaccine doses are being delivered, Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi – with the backing of chief medical officer Chris Whitty – have said the NHS is giving out the jabs as fast as it is getting them.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech jabs are the only ones available in the UK at the moment, and both faced manufacturing hiccups in January. Pfizer had to reconfigure machines at its factory in Belgium, to cope with the huge demands of manufacturing, and AstraZeneca had to wait for its naturally grown vaccines to mature.   

Nadhim Zahawi pressed recently on how long it would take to complete vaccination of the 31million people in the nine priority groups, said: ‘I don’t want to commit to a date without going through it with a very fine toothcomb with the whole team, because our limiting factor is the supply of vaccines ultimately.

‘With any manufacturing process, especially one that is new, there are challenges around that, as we’ve seen in Europe and as we saw in the early days in the UK as well.’

AstraZeneca, which manufactures in the UK, became embroiled in a bitter row with the EU over cutting back the continent’s supplies – although both the company and the UK Government insisted this hasn’t hit British stockpiles. The company is now believed to be providing 2million doses per week to Britain.

Matt Hancock described the UK’s ‘lumpy supply’ when asked about a dip in vaccination numbers on Sundays.

A third vaccine is expected to become available from next month – the jab made by US company Moderna, which is almost identical to Pfizer’s. Britain has ordered 17million doses of Moderna’s.

Pfizer had to reconfigure machines at its factory in Belgium, to cope with the huge demands of manufacturing, which led to a disruption in the UK's supply at the end of January and early February (pictured, its facility in Puurs, Belgium)

Pfizer had to reconfigure machines at its factory in Belgium, to cope with the huge demands of manufacturing, which led to a disruption in the UK’s supply at the end of January and early February (pictured, its facility in Puurs, Belgium)

SUNDAYS: Only some doctors are offering appointments on Sundays

A clear pattern has emerged in the weekly distribution of vaccinations, which shows a huge spike in jabs given on Saturdays followed by a slump on Sundays.

Last week there were 550,000 people immunised on Saturday, February 7, followed by just 279,000 on Sunday. The week before, the Saturday high was a record 598,389, and the Sunday low 319,000.    

The fall was even more pronounced the week before that, on January 24, when half as many jabs were done compared to the Saturday.

Several GPs, who asked not to be named, told MailOnline that a large number of practices shut on Sundays and do not offer appointments, despite No10 insisting the immunisation drive is a 24/7 operation. Scotland’s national clinical director said at the start of this month that the closure of surgeries on Sundays was hampering the vaccine rollout north of the border. 

The Royal College of GPs said said family doctors were ‘doing everything they can’ to get the vaccine to those who need it most, with ‘some’ but not all practices providing services seven days a week. 

Economists from the Institute for Economic Affairs told MailOnline that there is ‘no incentive’ for family doctors, who’ve been juggling the vaccine rollout and battling Covid on the frontlines of the second wave, to work seven days a week. It suggested GPs be offered commission on every jab done on a weekend.

The Royal College of GPs said said family doctors were 'doing everything they can' to get the vaccine to those who need it most, with 'some' but not all practices providing services seven days a week (Pictured: A woman receives a vaccine at a health centre in Falmouth, Cornwall)

The Royal College of GPs said said family doctors were ‘doing everything they can’ to get the vaccine to those who need it most, with ‘some’ but not all practices providing services seven days a week (Pictured: A woman receives a vaccine at a health centre in Falmouth, Cornwall)

THE LIST: NHS sticking ‘too rigidly’ to rapidly shrinking pool of people on priority list 

The target for the NHS to hit on Monday, February 15, is to vaccinate 15million people in the four highest priority groups for vaccination, who are most at risk of dying of Covid-19.

These four groups include everyone over the age of 70 or in a care home, frontline NHS staff, care workers, and the clinically extremely vulnerable, who have been shielding.

APPOINTMENTS GOING SPARE AT LONDON COVID JABS HUB, SAYS TOP SCIENTIST

More than 90 per cent of coronavirus vaccine appointments at a centre in London are not being filled, a top scientist has revealed.

Sir Paul Nurse, the head of the Francis Crick Institute where a jabs centre is based, said they had the capacity to give 1,000 doses a day, but in the last two weeks have given less than 100 every 24 hours.

He added that on one day they barely managed to fill 30 appointments, despite more than 500 volunteers being available.

Their centre is now having to close at weekends due to the few bookings. 

Sir Paul called on ministers to sort out the problem today to get the national rollout moving, saying ministers must use every second they have available.

‘The NHS vaccination program has gone very well but there does seem to be a problem showing itself in empty slots appearing in the national booking system,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. 

He said: ‘Any delay in the vaccination program in the long-run costs lives and livelihoods.’

Sir Paul added it was unclear why the issue was occurring, but it may be linked to a shortage of doses, to avoid criticism by not vaccinating all those in higher categories, or down to a postcode lottery in distribution.’ 

A vaccination centre in Telford has also reported few of its available appointments are being filled.

And the hub at Taunton Racecourse in Somerset has cut its opening times by five hours and told some staff they are temporarily not needed amid the slowdown. 

Reaching these people and protecting them, officials say, will prevent the vast majority of all Covid deaths in the UK once their immunity kicks in around two to three weeks later.

But, with 13.5million people vaccinated up to yesterday, the pool of people eligible and available to come forward for a jab is getting smaller and smaller, meaning more appointments go unfilled. 

Officials do not expect to get 100 per cent uptake of the jab, so waiting for everyone in the top groups to get the vaccine could be wasting valuable time that could be used vaccinating others.

Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who runs the Francis Crick Institute laboratories in London, said yesterday that the programme was now being ‘too rigid’ about who it was vaccinating. 

Crick scientists have joined NHS colleagues in an effort vaccinate up to 1,000 people a day but are at most injecting 300 patients daily, Sir Paul said.

He wrote in a column in The Times: ‘Is the adherence to moving through the priority groups so rigid that it is now slowing progress?…  

‘Speed is essential. Vaccinating faster will slow the spread of infection and reduce the risk of variants arising because larger numbers of people will be vaccinated more rapidly.

‘Increasing flexibility, developing agility, empowering the local, will get more patients through the door and get the virus more quickly under control.

‘Science has provided us with the tools to move forward. There is no time to be lost — we must vaccinate even faster.’

POSTCODE LOTTERY: Areas that started well saw supplies throttled 

 Another element of the rollout that may slow it down is the differences in speed across the country.

Areas that made very fast progress at the beginning of the vaccination programme, reaching their over-80s and care home residents, for example, saw their vaccine supplies reduced so they could be redirected to areas lagging behind to help them to catch up. 

In January officials warned that the supply of coronavirus vaccines to the North West of England would be cut by a third so doses could be diverted to parts of the country further behind in their rollout to the over-80s.

NHS England figures revealed the North West had vaccinated the second highest proportion of over-80s, reaching two thirds of the group who are among those most at risk if they catch the virus. Only the North East was ahead of it and supplies are expected to be limited there, too.

And NHS sources said the region – which includes Manchester, Liverpool, Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria – would see supplies cut in the first week of February, according to the Health Service Journal.

Updated data yesterday showed the postcode lottery is continuing, with parts of England have already dished out Covid vaccines to nearly 95 per cent of their over-70s.  

Updated data yesterday showed the postcode lottery is continuing, with parts of England have already dished out Covid vaccines to nearly 95 per cent of their over-70s - the rollout is moving slowest in London, the data show

Updated data yesterday showed the postcode lottery is continuing, with parts of England have already dished out Covid vaccines to nearly 95 per cent of their over-70s – the rollout is moving slowest in London, the data show

The NHS England statistics, which go up to February 7, show Somerset had given at least one dose to 93.4 per cent of all of its over-70s. Derbyshire was second, with 92.5 per cent of people above that age having received their first shot of either Pfizer's of Oxford University's vaccine

The NHS England statistics, which go up to February 7, show Somerset had given at least one dose to 93.4 per cent of all of its over-70s. Derbyshire was second, with 92.5 per cent of people above that age having received their first shot of either Pfizer’s of Oxford University’s vaccine

The NHS England statistics, which go up to February 7, show Somerset had given at least one dose to 93.4 per cent of all of its over-70s. Derbyshire was second, with 92.5 per cent.

The figures, which split England up into 40 areas where local NHS divisions operate, found another five areas had given the injection to more than nine in 10 of over-70s. They are: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; Lancashire and South Cumbria; Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire; Coventry and Warwickshire; and Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

But the figures suggest the roll-out has been somewhat of a postcode lottery, with just 76.3 per cent of the age bracket in east London being given their first dose, for example. In the North of the capital, uptake was not much higher at 78.2 per cent and in North West London it was similarly low, at 78.4 per cent. 

There have been reports of GP surgeries in London having to close early because not enough people have been turning up to get their injection. Health chiefs fear vaccine hesitancy among black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) groups is behind the poorer uptake in London’s culturally diverse boroughs. 

WHICH COVID VACCINES WILL BRITAIN GET ITS HANDS ON? 

Pfizer/BioNTech (approved) 40million doses

The breakthrough jab was the first in the world to be proven to successfully block severe Covid-19 last year and it gained approval in the UK on December 2. 

Type: It uses brand-new technology and is known as a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. Conventional vaccines are produced using weakened forms of the virus, but mRNAs use only the virus’s genetic code to enters cells and tells them to create antigens, which make them look like the coronavirus.

Efficacy: Studies showed the two-dose vaccine could prevent severe illness in 95 per cent of people who were injected with it. 

How many? The Government has ordered 40million doses, enough to vaccinate 20million Brits, but only a handful of million Brits have received the jab so far. 

Oxford University/AstraZeneca (approved) — 100million doses  

Type: Oxford’s vaccine is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus known as adenovirus which is genetically engineered to carry the genetics needed to create ‘spike’ proteins that make cells look like the coronavirus.

Efficacy: It was shown to be about 70 per cent effective at blocking Covid-19. In early results this varied from 62 per cent in people who received the full two doses to 90 per cent in people who received 1.5, however scientists say the 62 per cent figure has improved since those results were published.

How many? The UK has ordered 100million doses.

Moderna (approved) — 17million doses ordered

Type: Moderna’s jab also uses mRNA technology and works in a similar way to the Pfizer one already being offered on the NHS.

Efficacy: It was found to have 95 per cent efficacy in clinical trials.

How many? Britain has ordered 17million doses but was late to the party because it didn’t want to bet on this as well as the Pfizer jab, because both are based on the same technology. The first doses are expected to arrive in March.  

Novavax (waiting approval) — 100million doses

Type: The Novavax vaccine works like other vaccines by teaching the immune system to make antibodies to the coronavirus spike protein. Researchers inserted a modified gene into a virus, called a baculovirus, and allowed it to infect insect cells. Spike proteins from these cells were then assembled into nanoparticles which, while they look like coronavirus, cannot replicate or cause Covid-19.

Efficacy: Novavax said the trials had shown its vaccine was 89.3 per cent effective at preventing Covid-19.

How many? Under a deal with the Government, 60million doses of the vaccine will be produced on Teesside for use in this country. 

Janssen/Johnson and Johnson (waiting approval) — 30million doses 

Type: The jab uses the same adenovirus technology as the Oxford University vaccine, making it just as easy to transport and store, but requires just a single injection to protect against Covid. 

Efficacy: Johnson and Johnson said it prevents, on average, 66 per cent of all coronavirus cases among people who get the jab.

The company also found it prevented severe symptoms in 85 per cent of people and no-one who got the jab died or needed hospital treatment from 28 days after being inoculated. 

The 66 per cent efficacy was a global average, with the jab preventing 72 per cent of cases in the US but only 57 per cent in South Africa, which is being devastated by a mutated variant that appears to be less susceptible to vaccines and immunity from older versions of the virus. It is promising, however, that the jab still worked in South Africa and still prevented hospitalisation.

How many? The UK has already struck a deal for 30million doses, with the option of ordering 22million more.  

Valneva (in trials) — 100million doses

Type: This jab is an ‘inactivated whole virus vaccine’ which uses a damaged version of the real coronavirus to stimulate the immune system.

Efficacy: Unknown – trials are still ongoing, 

How many? Britain has already ordered 100million doses and the first batches could be delivered by the end of 2021. 

GlaxoSmithKline/Sanofi Pasteur (in trials) — 60million doses  

Type: GSK’s vaccine is based on the existing technology used to produce Sanofi’s seasonal flu vaccine. Genetic material from the surface protein of the Covid virus is inserted into insect cells – the basis of Sanofi’s influenza product – and then injected to provoke an immune response in a human patient.

Efficacy: Unknown – trials are still ongoing.

How many?  The UK in July secured 60million doses of the prospective treatment, but the companies say they will likely not be ready before the end of 2021.

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