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Scientists welcome UK approval of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine

As some call for national lockdown as Covid cases and deaths continue to rise

Scientists have welcomed the approval of a coronavirus vaccine developed by scientists at the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca for use in the UK at a time that some say is “the most precarious stage of the pandemic”.

On 30 December, the UK government said it had accepted the recommendations from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to authorise the use of ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine, paving way for immediate roll-out of the jabs.

The news comes as the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations has exceeded the numbers seen in the first wave back in spring, and many experts are calling for tighter measures.

“This is not a magic bullet,” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, referring to the vaccine.

A self-appointed expert group he chairs, Independent Sage, has called for an immediate national lockdown as the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 in the UK reached 53,135 on 29 December, with 21,286 people in hospital with the virus.

“The UK is now at the most precarious stage of the pandemic and urgent action is needed,” said King. “There is every reason to treat this as the critical time for action now. Any delay will probably cause tens of thousands more deaths.”

Many experts see vaccines as the ultimate exit strategy from the pandemic, welcoming the latest approval but also acknowledging challenges ahead.

‘Landmark moment’

The vaccine, which will be administered in two doses, uses a viral vector based on a weakened version of the common cold virus containing the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

Unlike some other coronavirus vaccines, such as the previously approved Pfizer vaccine, it can be stored at domestic fridge temperature, making it easier to transport and administer.

Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and chief investigator of the Oxford vaccine trial, described the approval as a “landmark moment” and an “endorsement of the huge effort from a devoted international team of researchers and our dedicated trial participants”.

“Though this is just the beginning, we will start to get ahead of the pandemic, protect health and economies when the vulnerable are vaccinated everywhere, as many as possible as soon as possible,” he said.

Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at the university who developed the vaccine, said: “This is a day for the team developing the vaccine to celebrate, after a year of extremely hard work under difficult circumstances.

“Now that the first authorisation or use of the vaccine outside of clinical trials has been granted, we still have more to do and will continue to provide more data to multiple regulatory authorities, until we are able to see the vaccine being used to save lives around the world.”

Their joy was shared by scientists across the UK, with Arne Akbar, president of the British Society for Immunology, describing the approval as “brilliant news and an extremely positive step forward in our ability to control this pandemic”.

‘Much work to do’

However, Akbar said there was still “much work to do to roll out this vaccine across the country at the speed required and we need to support our dedicated healthcare professionals in the logistical challenges ahead”.

“Additionally, we must build public confidence in the vaccine to ensure high uptake. We urgently need a high-profile, multifaceted engagement campaign that listens and responds to the public’s questions around the vaccine.”

Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also urged caution.

“This will not bring a rapid return to life as it was before Covid-19, but is a very major step on the way,” he said.

“Recipients of the vaccine will still have to follow distancing, hand-washing and other non-medical interventions to protect themselves and those around them. No vaccine is 100 per cent effective and behaving as if it were, will serve to prolong the pandemic.”

He added that the availability of large numbers of doses both in the UK and in lower-income countries was “of enormous importance”.

The UK government has ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine—enough to vaccinate 50 million people. This will cover the entire UK population when combined with the full order of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, which was approved earlier this month for use in the UK.

Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, said the first dose of the vaccine should be given “to as many people as possible with the second dose being delayed for up to 12 weeks” to maximise the number of at-risk groups receiving the vaccine.

“This will allow the 100 million vaccine doses ordered by the UK government to be rolled out to as many people as possible starting as soon as next week,” he said.