U.K. Mobilizes for Vaccine Redemption After Pandemic Missteps
(Bloomberg) -- When a coronavirus vaccine arrives, the staff and elderly residents of the Home of Comfort, on England’s south coast, will be among the first to roll up their sleeves.
A shot would bring hope to the Southsea nursing home, where the virus has sickened residents and sidelined employees. The pandemic for months cut off visits from family, and has prevented members of the community from seeing the faces of workers and holding their hands.
“That touch matters, and it’s gone,” said Robin Hall, the administration manager. If a vaccine “meant we could relax our precautions a little, it would make an enormous difference.”
As optimism grows that developers from Pfizer Inc. to AstraZeneca Plc are on the cusp of delivering a vaccine, Britain is preparing for one of its biggest peacetime mobilizations. The nation has signed deals for 350 million doses and put its regulator in position to potentially approve shots before the European Union, seeking to become one of the first nations to roll out a vaccine.
Even the army has been pressed into service to ensure doses get to hospitals and doctors’ offices, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson tries to save Christmas for a country suffering through its second lockdown this year.
But Britain’s erratic response to the crisis, including its panned approach to testing and contact tracing, has fueled concerns that authorities may bungle the distribution of shots as well. With about 50,000 deaths from Covid-19, the U.K. has one of the highest mortality rates in the world, and a resurgence of cases threatens to overwhelm a health system that’s been under increasing strain for years.
“The main priority is making sure that the vaccination rollout program doesn’t end up mired in the same sort of mess as test-and-trace,” said Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, the U.K. union that represents medical workers.
A shortfall in supplies of the AstraZeneca shot expected to be available by the end of the year casts doubt on how fast the U.K. will be able to vaccinate the public. In the most optimistic estimate, achieving herd immunity -- a level seen at 60% to 70% of the population -- could occur in September 2021, according to London-based Airfinity Ltd. But it could take longer.
Deployment will start with care-home residents and staff, followed by people more than 80 years old, health workers and then the wider population, based on age and risk, the government said.
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For Johnson, criticized for downplaying the virus threat early on, the stakes are especially high. The operation could coincide with Britain’s departure from the EU’s single market, giving the prime minister, whose efforts to exit the EU succeeded in January, a strong interest in showing that the U.K. can manage its affairs just fine on its own.
Surprisingly upbeat findings from Pfizer and partner BioNTech SE on Monday may clear the way for the companies to seek an emergency-use authorization if further data show their shot is safe. The government said it’s also investing more than 230 million pounds ($305 million) in building up domestic manufacturing, mostly from scratch.
Close behind Pfizer are Britain’s AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. AstraZeneca Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot told Bloomberg the company is preparing for the possibility of large-scale vaccinations as early as December. Should the program succeed, Britain will be the first to get access, the government said.
The U.K. has also put in place regulations that could pave the way for the country to carry out an expedited approval process. That means if a vaccine is found before the end of 2020, immunizations could begin without waiting for approval from the European Medicines Agency, the regulator the U.K. falls under until January.
Doctors have been put on standby for the possible delivery of a vaccine before Christmas, while the country is moving to expand the pool of people who can give the jabs beyond the National Health Service to other health professionals, paramedics, physiotherapists, pharmacists and student nurses and doctors. Designated clinics will be expected to deliver at least 975 vaccines a week, and stay open every day between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., documents show.
Scrutiny of the government plan is mounting. Unison has warned that private firms and unqualified staff shouldn’t be involved in giving the shots. Others have questioned whether supply will meet demand.
Only 4 million doses of the Astra vaccine will be available by year-end, Kate Bingham, chair of the U.K. Vaccine Taskforce, said last week. That’s far fewer than the target of as many as 30 million doses that were to be ready by September. The drugmaker said it expects to begin supplying hundreds of millions of doses on a rolling basis once a shot is cleared.
Transport and storage requirements for some vaccines, especially those like Pfizer’s that need ultra-cold temperatures, could be obstacles. Nor is it known how well the Pfizer shot works in key groups such as the elderly. Until there’s more data, there may be concerns about vaccinating older people in care homes, said Sanjeev Kanoria, founder of Advinia Health Care, a network of 37 U.K. facilities.
Almost a third of the deaths of nursing home residents in England and Wales between March and June -- or more than 19,000 -- involved Covid-19, according to government data. It’s vital that the country gets the vaccine rollout right to protect those vulnerable people, and allow them to feel the touch of their caregivers again, said Hall at the Home of Comfort.
“If vaccination is chaotic, it will achieve so much less, and I think in terms of take-up it could almost be harmful,” she said. “It would be better to wait until the logistical operation is in place to do it in a way that’s smooth and predictable than to try to do it before it’s ready.”
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