Brian Pinker receives the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, Britain, January 4 2021. Picture: STEVEN PARSONS/REUTERS
Brian Pinker receives the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, Britain, January 4 2021. Picture: STEVEN PARSONS/REUTERS

London — The UK on Monday gave the first shots of a Covid-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca  and the University of Oxford, in a race against a faster-spreading coronavirus variant that’s prompted renew lockdowns across much of the country.

The first injection was administered to an 82-year-old kidney dialysis patient at Oxford University Hospital on Monday morning.

UK regulators cleared the AstraZeneca-Oxford shot last week, marking its first approval worldwide. It’s the second coronavirus injection to be authorised for emergency use in Britain, after one from Pfizer and BioNTech received the go-ahead in early December.

The UK has moved more rapidly on vaccine approvals and rollouts than the US or the EU, clearing the AstraZeneca-Oxford product despite clinical trials that involved a smaller number of participants and that were complicated by a dosing error. A regulatory decision to lengthen the interval between doses of the two-shot vaccines to as many as 12 weeks has prompted further questions.

Britain is stepping up its vaccine campaign as coronavirus infections surge across the country, with more than 50,000 new cases reported daily. A new strain that’s estimated to be as much as 70% more transmissible is fuelling the pandemic’s resurgence. Schools have been closed across much of the country and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that tougher restrictions may be on the way, with the National Health Service facing a growing strain on hospitals.

More than 1-million people in Britain have received injections of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, according to a statement from the department of health and social care.

The UK has raced ahead of France, where fewer than 400 people had received their initial shots up to this weekend. President Emmanuel Macron has come under fire for the slow pace of that country’s rollout, which has been hampered by caution amid high levels of vaccine scepticism. France is behind not just European neighbours such as Britain and Germany, but also Israel, where more than 12% of the population has already received shots.

In the UK, more than 500,000 AstraZeneca-Oxford doses will be available up to Monday, and they will be delivered at hospitals for the first few days. The UK aims to expand the number of vaccination sites to more than 1,000, with as many as 100 more hospitals and 180 general practitioner-led services coming online this week.

“Everybody’s working flat out to do this,” Johnson told the BBC on Sunday. “We do hope that we will be able to do tens of millions in the course of the next three months.”

Other approvals

Though the newly approved vaccine has shown lower effectiveness than the Pfizer-BioNTech one in clinical trials, it has some key advantages: it’s cheaper and easier to transport and store, requiring only refrigerator temperatures rather than deep freezing. That makes it crucial for the broader global vaccination push, and countries including Argentina and India have followed the UK in authorising the shot for use.

The NHS is administering the first injections under a two-shot regime approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. The second can be given as many as 12 weeks later, as the UK seeks to maximise the number of vulnerable people who receive the first portion, which provides some protection from infection.

The UK has also taken a more flexible approach to the two-dose regimen, saying that in certain circumstances — such as when it’s not known which vaccine a patient received the first time around — the second shot can be administered with a different company’s product.

The regulator has yet to publish full data backing its decision to allow a greater time interval between shots, which has drawn opposition from the British Medical Association.

“It is grossly and patently unfair to tens of thousands of our most at-risk patients to now try to reschedule their appointments,” said Richard Vautrey, chairman of the association’s general practitioners committee.



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