Experts welcome move to ‘protect the greatest number of people in the shortest possible time.’
In an effort to protect as many people as possible, U.K. health workers will begin giving the first dose of coronavirus vaccines to as many at-risk people as possible, rather than ensure that a second dose is administered quickly.
The decision, announced by the government Wednesday, makes the U.K. the first country to publicly adapt its vaccination strategy to prioritize rapid, widespread coverage over sticking to the schedule set by drugmakers.
The move, which follows advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), is based on data from clinical trials that show recipients of the vaccine seem to acquire a strong degree of immunity after a single dose.
“Everyone will still receive their second dose and this will be within 12 weeks of their first,” the government said in a statement. “The second dose completes the course and is important for longer term protection.”
The announcement comes as the U.K. became the first country to approve the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
Under the new advice, the second dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine will need to be given between three and 12 weeks after the first dose rather than within 21 days, and the second dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will need to be given between four and 12 weeks.
At a briefing on Wednesday, the JCVI’s chair for COVID-19 immunization, Wei Shen Lim, said the vaccine studies show that after a first dose people gained a “high level of protection” and that the decision to prioritize the first dose “will protect the greatest number of lives.”
Referring specifically to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, Lim referred to unpublished results in a subgroup of patients indicating efficacy of 70 percent, 21 days after the first dose.
The change of strategy, most prominently championed by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, was widely welcomed by experts.
“I have no doubt this decision will save many lives,” said Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia. Hunter pointed to available evidence from the trials of both vaccines indicating that a single dose is beneficial.
The decision is a “sensible” one, echoed Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, explaining that while the evidence on the efficacy of one dose is more limited, “the crisis in the U.K. requires more than the usual regulatory approach.”
The U.K.’s chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also issued a statement Wednesday concurring with the JCVI’s new advice, stating that this would “protect the greatest number of at risk people overall in the shortest possible time and will have the greatest impact on reducing mortality, severe disease and hospitalisations.”
The news that more people will be able to receive their first shot of the vaccine comes as cases continue to rise in the U.K., with the number of COVID-19 hospitalized patients surpassing the peak in the first wave.
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