Coronavirus: Oxford vaccine ‘may be rolled out within weeks’ - but UK faces jab shortages

Mass production difficulties will limit early supplies

Woman receives an injection of a Covid vaccine during a clinical trial.
(Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Two Covid-19 vaccines are on the verge of being certified as safe and effective - but production delays mean the first batches may reach no more than a fraction of the UK population.

A homegrown vaccine, developed by Oxford University and manufactured by AstraZeneca, has the “possibility of being ready before the end of the year”, according to Kate Bingham, the chair of the government’s vaccine task force.

She told MPs yesterday that the first three batches of the drug, now in production, “should get us up to about four million doses by the end of the year”. But as The Telegraph points out, the government pledged in May that “30 million vaccines would be ready by September to allow for immediate mass deployment if trials were successful”.

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The delay is down to the technical challenge of splicing an immunity-generating protein from the coronavirus with a harmless chimpanzee virus that will carry it into human cells.

“It’s not through lack of care and attention or availability of equipment or anything like that,” Bingham said. “It’s just that this normally takes a very long time.”

Another potential vaccine, developed in Germany by Pfizer and BioNTech, is simpler to manufacture but “contains a type of genetic material known as mRNA that must be stored at minus 70C”, The Times reports. That makes it difficult and expensive to distribute.

The UK has signed deals to buy 350 million doses of a total of six vaccines, all of which are undergoing trials. Once the results are published, the government’s health authorities will decide whether to approve their widespread use.

“The US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, has said it wanted at least 50% efficacy to approve a vaccine,” The Guardian reports. “But if one was found to prevent 40% of cases, [UK] policymakers would have to consider whether it would be of help to the NHS.”

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Holden Frith is The Week’s digital director. He also makes regular appearances on “The Week Unwrapped”, speaking about subjects as diverse as vaccine development and bionic bomb-sniffing locusts. He joined The Week in 2013, spending five years editing the magazine’s website. Before that, he was deputy digital editor at The Sunday Times. He has also been’s technology editor and the launch editor of Wired magazine’s UK website. Holden has worked in journalism for nearly two decades, having started his professional career while completing an English literature degree at Cambridge University. He followed that with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago. A keen photographer, he also writes travel features whenever he gets the chance.