The UK celebrates its speedy vaccine deployment — but many questions remain open.
V-Day has arrived in the U.K.
As the first citizens receive a novel jab to protect them from COVID-19, the government’s Vaccines Taskforce got a huge pat on the back Monday by an independent report touting the achievements that got the U.K. to this day.
The Taskforce worked “decisively” and at “great pace” to improve the U.K.’s pandemic preparedness, the report says, arguing that collaboration with the brightest minds and government financial support played vital roles.
But it doesn’t discuss the country’s high mortality rates — the total number of deaths stood at 61,434 on Monday — or EU criticism of its speedy vaccine approval. Key details such as the cost of the effort are missing.
It also leaves open the question of how to vaccinate care home residents, given the logistical issues that arise from the vaccine storage requirement of minus 70 degrees Celsius and the risks of transporting vulnerable people to hospitals.
Kate Bingham, chair of the Taskforce, skirted around those questions Tuesday, telling BBC Today that the Department of Health and Social Care manages deployment and stating: “My responsibility stops once we hand over a vaccine.”
But those questions didn’t dampen the broader mood.
“It’s been really emotional,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock on the same program, adding he was “so proud” of the teams who have made it happen. But he’s also “tinged with worry,” he conceded. “We’ve got to keep our resolve … to protect those who are vulnerable.”
As the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) invited those designated as top priority — seniors over 80, care home workers and at-risk health workers — Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday the country owes the Vaccine Taskforce and collaborators “a debt of gratitude.”
“I am hugely grateful for the hard work and dedication of the Vaccine Taskforce … which has brought us to this point in challenging circumstances, representing the best the government and civil service can do — working with businesses, experts and the public to tackle a common problem at incredible pace,” he said.
The independent review, conducted by Richard Sykes, chair of the Royal Institution and former chair of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, found the “diverse portfolio of vaccines across different formats gives the U.K. the greatest chance of providing a safe and effective vaccine, recognizing that many of these vaccines in development may fail.”
The country has ordered 357 million doses of the “most promising” COVID-19 vaccines for a population of 67 million, comprising seven different vaccines across four different formats.
Bingham had originally asked for the 10 best jabs from the more than 240 in development globally, and she told a press briefing Monday that other vaccines are still being looked at.
The strategy was to strike early deals, taking the risk the vaccines might not be approved and prioritizing those with the earliest delivery schedules. This meant the U.K. was first to secure a deal with Pfizer/BioNTech — the first approved vaccine in Western countries.
Set up in April by the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, the Taskforce has an allocated budget and backing from the highest levels of government. Both of those factors were key for securing quick deals with vaccine makers, the report said. Without those advantages, it would have been “inconceivable” that the Taskforce could have secured these vaccines.
The report didn’t offer hard numbers, however, and no details have been published on the total spending to date on COVID-19 vaccines. Those will stay confidential for now, Bingham said. But she added that they would be released one day.
The report also notes that the U.K., as a relatively small buyer compared with the EU or the U.S., “had to explore creative deal structures and approaches to ensure early supply.”
Furthermore, striking deals early has given NHS teams time to prepare, Sykes pointed out. That means military personnel are on standby today to transport further stocks from Belgium and build vaccination centers. The first 800,000 doses have been distributed to 50 hubs across the U.K.’s four nations, with several million expected by the end of the year.
The report also highlights the Taskforce’s achievements in future pandemic preparedness. For example, it audited vaccines manufacturing facilities in the U.K. and drew up plans to accelerate future vaccine development. It identified three sites to be repurposed for COVID-19 vaccines manufacturing.
This means that while the first few million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will be imported from Germany, the vast bulk will be manufactured and finished at these sites from next year on, with the entire process happening in the U.K., the Taskforce said.
Valneva’s whole virus vaccine and Novavax’s protein adjuvant vaccine are also being manufactured in the U.K. However, the U.K. is still building capability to manufacture the messenger RNA vaccines, such as Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s jabs, the report said.
The Taskforce also created a registry of over 360,000 volunteers able to rapidly join vaccine trials, and it will launch human challenge studies from January to purposely infect volunteers — the only country globally to be taking this approach to test vaccines.
As for other priorities, Sykes called for further manufacturing investment to secure bulk antibody manufacturing capability and build up antigen manufacturing capacity quickly. “Both [are] critical parts of the U.K.’s pandemic armory to support a rapid response to future pandemics,” he wrote.
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro HealthCare. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email email@example.com for a complimentary trial.
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