he Oxford vaccine could be rolled out across the UK within the next fortnight as the head of the company raised hopes of the jab’s “winning formula”.
The Government is reportedly aiming for mass vaccination centres to start administering patients with either the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer jab from January 4, as the new variant of coronavirus first found in the UK continues to spread across the world.
Senior Government sources told the Sunday Telegraph that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) could approve the homegrown jab as soon as Sunday, with millions poised to start receiving the jab at the start of next month.
The reports come as the AstraZeneca chief said he believed researchers had found the “winning formula” using two doses and promised to publish the results.
“We think we have figured out the winning formula and how to get efficacy that, after two doses, is up there with everybody else,” Pascal Soriot told The Sunday Times. “I can’t tell you more because we will publish at some point.”
Amid the rapid spread of the UK virus strain to several other countries, he added: “So far, we think the vaccine should remain effective. But we can’t be sure, so we’re going to test that.”
On Christmas Eve, the Department of Health and Social Care said more than 600,000 people had received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, but the roll-out in care homes has been limited to seven areas.
It added larger care homes with 50 to 70 beds would be prioritised first, with around 2,900 care homes of this size in England.
But Chancellor Rishi Sunak praised vaccination efforts so far, telling the Mail on Sunday: “There will be tough days and months ahead, but there are reasons to look ahead to a brighter future and what 2021 promises.
“The early roll-out of vaccines – and the incredible work of our scientists and NHS – means we can now see light at the end of the tunnel with this pandemic.”
However, medical unions and Labour criticised the Government’s handling of the programme, which they said had not made enough progress in care homes.
Nadra Ahmed, chairman of the National Care Association, told the Sunday Mirror the Pfizer/BioNTech roll out was going to be “difficult” but added: “It’s another case of the massive over-promise on something that just cannot be delivered. It’s constant.”
And Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the paper there was a “race against time” to vaccinate enough people as he urged the Government to avoid what he said were “the same mistakes again” in being “too slow” to protect care home residents – a veiled reference to PPE and hospital discharges.
The new variant, which was blamed for soaring rates across the country before the wider imposition of stricter Tier 4 measures in swathes of England on Boxing Day, continues to drive high case rates with another 34,693 reported on Saturday.
Cases of the variant strain have been confirmed across Europe including in France, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as around the globe in Australia, Japan and Lebanon.
Dr Barbara Yaffe, the associate chief medical officer of Canada’s Ontario province, said the first two confirmed cases were a couple from the country’s Durham region with no known travel history, exposure or high-risk contacts.
People living in Ontario, like those in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and much of England, are now living under lockdown measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
In Wales, the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board put out an appeal on social media calling for “assistance from medical students or other staff groups who have previously supported with proning patients”, the process where people are turned onto their front to help with breathing.
More than six million people in east and south-east England went into the highest level of restrictions, which now affects 24 million people representing 43 per cent of the population.
Areas that moved to Tier 4 are Sussex, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, parts of Essex not yet in the highest tier, Waverley in Surrey and Hampshire, with the exception of the New Forest.
Tier 4 restrictions include a warning to stay at home, a limit on household mixing to two people outdoors and force the closure of many shops, hairdressers and gyms.
The measures come on top of Tier 3 restrictions such as the closure of pubs and restaurants except for takeaways and deliveries.
Mainland Scotland entered Level 4 restrictions from Saturday, with the Scottish Government intending the increased measures to last for three weeks.
In Northern Ireland, the first week measures are the toughest yet, with a form of curfew in operation from 8pm, shops closed from that time and all indoor and outdoor gatherings prohibited until 6am.
Non-essential retail will close throughout the next six weeks, as will close-contact services, while hospitality outlets will be limited to takeaway services.