UK appoints vaccines minister to oversee COVID-19 inoculations

Associated Press/UNB . London | Published: 14:04, Nov 29,2020


A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit shows Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson remotely updating MPs on the COVID-19 pandemic, in a hybrid, socially distanced session at the House of Commons in London on November 23, 2020. — AFP photo


The British government appointed a vaccines minister on Saturday as it prepared to inoculate millions of people against the coronavirus, potentially starting within days.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said that conservative lawmaker NadhimZahawi will oversee the country’s biggest vaccine programme in decades.

The UK medicines regulator was currently assessing two vaccines — one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, the other by Oxford University and AstraZeneca — to see if they were safe and effective. The Guardian newspaper reported that hospitals had been told they could receive the first doses of the Pfizer shot the week of December 7, if it received approval.

The UK said that frontline health care workers and nursing home residents will be the first to be vaccinated, followed by older people, starting with those over age 80.

Britain had ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, enough for 20 million people, and 100 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

In all, the UK government had agreed to purchase up to 355 million doses of vaccine from seven different producers, as it prepared to vaccinate as many of the country’s 67 million people as possible.

Decisions about which, if any, vaccines to authorise will be made by the independent Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.

Pfizer and BioNTech said that their vaccine is 95 per cent effective, according to preliminary data. It must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures of around minus 70 degrees Celsius.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored at conventional refrigerator temperatures, and is also cheaper than its main rivals. But some scientists have questioned gaps in its reported results.

Oxford and AstraZeneca reported this week that their vaccine appeared to be 62 per cent effective in people who received two doses, and 90 per cent effective when volunteers were given a half dose followed by a full dose. They said that the half dose was administered because of a manufacturing error, and they planned a new clinical trial to investigate the most effective dosing regimen.

The British government hoped a combination of vaccines and mass testing will end the need for restrictions on business and everyday life it imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Britain has had Europe’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak, with more than 57,000 confirmed virus-related deaths.

The prime minister said this week that officials hoped to inoculate ‘the vast majority of the people who need the most protection by Easter.’ But he warned that ‘we must first navigate a hard winter’ of restrictions.

A four-week national lockdown in England is due to end Wednesday, and will be replaced by three-tiered system of regional measures that restrict business activity, travel and socialising. The vast majority of the country was being put into the upper two tiers.

The restrictions had sparked protests, with police arresting scores of people at an anti-lockdown demonstration in London on Saturday.

Several bottles and smoke bombs were thrown as anti-mask and anti-vaccine demonstrators scuffled with officers in the city’s West End shopping district. The Metropolitan Police force said that 155 people were arrested.

Johnson also faced opposition to the measures from dozens of his own Conservative Party’s lawmakers, who said that the economic damage outweighs the public health benefits.

Butcabinet minister Michael Gove said that the restrictions were ‘grimly’ necessary to avoid the health system being overwhelmed this winter.

Writing in The Times of London, Gove said that there were currently 16,000 coronavirus patients in British hospitals, not far below the April peak of 20,000. A rise in infections would mean coronavirus patients would ‘displace all but emergency cases. And then even those,’ he said.

‘If, however, we can keep the level of infection stable or, even better, falling, and hold out through January and February, then we can be confident that vaccination will pull the plug on the problem,’ Gove wrote.

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