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Vaccine lab staff ‘should be prioritised for Covid-19 jabs’

AstraZeneca executive warns ‘everything could stop’ if there are outbreaks in its centres

Researchers and lab staff working on Covid-19 vaccines should be vaccinated as a priority, according to a top executive at AstraZeneca.

Mene Pangalos, executive vice president of biopharmaceuticals research and development at the firm, which is currently rolling out a vaccine in collaboration with the University of Oxford, said he was worried about “maintaining a continuous supply and work” on the vaccine.

“With the outbreak and the pandemic where it is, I feel it’s critical that the people who are working on this vaccine are actually immunised,” he told MPs during a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee session on UK Science, Research and Technology Capability and Influence in Global Disease Outbreaks on 13 January.

“Because if you have an outbreak at one of the centres—which we’ve had—or one of the groups in Oxford that are working on new variants, or people working on the regulatory files, everything stops.”

He added that AstraZeneca was currently “pushing to try to get our key workers that are working on the vaccine project immunised to prevent these outbreaks”.

Priority groups

The current priority groups for the first phase of vaccine roll out do not specify vaccine R&D and production staff but focus instead on the elderly, critically vulnerable, and frontline health and social care workers.

Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 chair for Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) at Public Health England, told Research Professional News that the JCVI’s advice on Covid-19 vaccine prioritisation was developed with the aim of preventing as many deaths as possible.

“As the single greatest risk of death from Covid-19 is older age, prioritisation is primarily based on age,” he said. “It is estimated that vaccinating everyone in the priority groups would prevent 99 per cent of deaths, including those associated with occupational exposure to infection.”

When asked if such staff will be vaccinated as a priority, Nadhim Zahawi, the UK government minister for Covid vaccine deployment, told MPs: “We have to make sure the vaccination supply chain and the infrastructure is secured—not just in terms of the threat of the virus itself, but threats of cyber attack or other security.

“So we work with them very closely, and of course [we are] very much focused on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s absolute focus on the categories that are most vulnerable, but the supply chain is very much a part of that, so I can give you that assurance.”

Manufacturing capacity in the UK

Elsewhere in the session, AstraZeneca’s president, Tom Keith-Roach, said it should be a “national priority to ensure we have the right capacity and the right capability for vaccine manufacturing onshore here in the UK”.

“I think the steps the government has taken to accelerate the Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Oxford is welcome but we think there is more we could and should be doing to support and attract new investments in manufacturing capabilities and investment in the future,” he said, in reference to the government’s £93 million investment in the VMIC centre, which is expected to be completed later this year.

Asked why AstraZeneca had missed its initial target to produce 30 million doses of the vaccine by September 2020, Pangalos said yields were lower than anticipated and that there had been batch failures.

“That’s all part of moving very rapidly as you are trying to optimise the process,” he said. “We were flying the plane and building it at the same time.”

AstraZeneca has committed to supplying up to two million doses a week of Covid-19 vaccine to people in the UK by mid-January as part of the government’s target to offer the first vaccine dose to all those in the top four priority groups by 15 February.

“We are scaling up to two million a week imminently and certainly hope to be there on or before the middle of February,” Keith-Roach told MPs.

“Longer term, as with all medicines manufacturing, we are constantly working on process optimisation, yield optimisation within that manufacturing supply chain.”

He added that, although AstraZeneca could not commit to supplying more than two million a week, “it may be possible as those process optimisation efforts bear fruit to increase that somewhat as we move into quarter two”.