U.K. Hopes Oxford-Astra Vaccine Will Be Ready by Early New Year

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The U.K. expects its medicines regulator to decide whether to approve the coronavirus vaccine from AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford within weeks, potentially delivering a major boost to economic revival efforts.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the watchdog could reach a decision based on its investigations into the safety and effectiveness data by early January, or even sooner.

“I think there’s a fair chance that by early in the new year, possibly before, but that entirely depends on the data, they’ll be able to say whether they’re confident that this vaccine is both efficacious and safe,” Whitty said at a press conference with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday.

After that, the government will make a “slow start” to rolling out the vaccine, to ensure any issues are dealt with, Whitty said. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency should be left to do its work without pressure, he said.

The U.K. was the first western country to approve a coronavirus vaccine -- the shot from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE -- and vaccinated almost 140,000 people in its first week. While the government has ordered a total of 40 million doses, there are logistical difficulties with the Pfizer product due to the need to store it at minus-70 degrees Celsius.

British officials expect the AstraZeneca shot to give a major boost to the inoculation program if it is approved because it would be easier to roll out. The U.K. has 100 million doses on order. Although the vaccine was one of the first out of the gate, its efficacy in trials has been lower than that of the Pfizer shot and one from Moderna Inc., and there have been questions about the results.

Speaking at the press conference, Johnson said he believes a critical moment will arrive by April, when the highest-risk people have been vaccinated and it will be possible to ease pandemic restrictions.

Whitty said that if the regulator backs the AstraZeneca vaccine and “there aren’t any last-minute hitches” it will “significantly” speed up the process of getting the country back toward normal.

“We all hope that will come through but the right thing to do is to see what the regulator says,” Whitty said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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