Coronavirus: 'Small chance' COVID jab will be ready before Christmas, Oxford vaccine boss says

The director of the Oxford vaccine trial has said there is a “small chance” a jab will be ready before Christmas. Vaccine trial chief investigator Andrew Pollard told the Science and Technology Committee he is “optimistic” the University of Oxford trial could present late-stage results, possibly revealing whether it works, before the end of the year. Asked if the vaccine would be ready by Christmas, he said: “There is a small chance of that being possible but I just don’t know.

“Our trials are only one of many that are going on around the world, a number of which may well report before the end of
the year.” However, he said the timeline for the deployment of vaccines still remains unclear. It comes as Boris Johnson said we could see a vaccine in the first part of 2021.

A coronavirus vaccine has not yet been approved and it will need to go through regulators to confirm it is safe and effective before it can be offered to the public. There are two frontrunners that are currently in late-stage clinical trials and could be sending clinical data to regulators within weeks. These are potential vaccines from German firm BioNtech and US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, and the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca.

Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce Kate Bingham told the committee she is “more than 50%” confident of a vaccine being developed by next summer. She said the data looks positive we will see a vaccine that “works to some degree” and that we are “very likely” to see a vaccine that reduces illness and death. However, it has a “slim” chance of completely eradicating the virus, she warned.

Meanwhile, the committee heard that no vials have been filled with the Oxford vaccine, in preparation for a national roll-out. It means the government will fall short of the 30 million doses of the vaccines it promised to deliver by the end of September. Instead, there will be enough vaccines for four million doses by the end of 2020, Ms Bingham said.

Earlier, NHS England’s chief executive said the health service is getting ready to administer a COVID-19 vaccine before Christmas if a jab is ready. Sir Simon Stevens told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are over 200 vaccines in development and we believe that we should hopefully get one or more of those available from the first part of next year. “In anticipation of that we’re also gearing the NHS up to be ready to make a start on administering COVID-19 vaccines before Christmas, if they become available.”

He said an “agreement” has been reached with GPs to ensure this will happen, adding: “We will be writing to GP practices this week to get them geared up to start by Christmas if the vaccine becomes available.” On Tuesday, GP magazine Pulse reported that GPs are being put on standby to start vaccinating over-85s and frontline health workers from the beginning of next month. Although, Ms Bingham previously warned the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines “is likely to be imperfect” and “might not work for everyone”.

Last week, she wrote in the Lancet medical journal: “We should be prepared that they might not prevent infection but rather reduce symptoms, and, even then, might not work for everyone or for long.” It follows warnings from government scientists the NHS will be overwhelmed with thousands more deaths unless action is taken. Sir Simon said: “In many parts of the country we’re now seeing more coronavirus inpatients in hospital and in intensive care than we saw in the first peak in April.”

He added the health service is “adding as much capacity as it can” in anticipation of the usual winter pressures and COVID patients. But he said people need to do everything they can to keep the infection rates down to ensure that other services – routine operations and cancer care – can be preserved. “We are obviously adding as much capacity as we can in anticipation of not only coronavirus but the extra winter pressures that always come along with this time of year,” he said.

“And the reason we want to try and minimise the number of coronavirus infections and patients is not only because of the excess death rate that implies, but because of the knock-on consequences it has for other services – routine operations, cancer care. “And so if we want to preserve those other services so that the health service can continue to help the full range of patients, we need to do everything we can, together, to keep the infection rate down for coronavirus.” A committee advising the government on vaccines has already set out which groups should be prioritised for receiving a COVID-19 jab.

Care home residents and workers should be the first to be given any approved vaccine, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has said. Afterwards, everyone aged 80 and over and health and social care workers should be next to receive the jab. Overall, there are more than 200 vaccine candidates in development around the world, with 44 in clinical trials.

Of the 44, nine are in the phase three stage of clinical evaluation and are being given to thousands of people to confirm safety and effectiveness. A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said on Tuesday: “While there are no certainties in the development, production, and timing of new vaccines, there is a possibility a Covid-19 vaccine could be available in the UK in the first part of 2021. “It will only be rolled out once proven to be safe and effective through robust clinical trials and approved by medicines regulator the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency].

“Once approved, the NHS stands ready to begin the vaccination programme to those most at risk, before being rolled out more widely.”

A spokesperson for the NHS added: “The NHS has well-established plans for delivering vaccinations across the country, including the annual flu jab and children’s immunisations, and work is under way to build on these tried and tested approaches so that when a vaccine is ready, staff can deliver it safely.”

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