UK’s rapid Covid-19 vaccination campaign shows early signs of success


Britain moved quicker than any other European nation to both approve and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, injecting nearly 15% of its population in just over two months in an enormous logistical operation. It has doled out more than nine million shots in locations as varied as clinics, cathedrals and racecourses. The US in comparison has inoculated 9% of its population.

Scientists warn that it is still too early to draw firm conclusions about how effective the vaccinations are or for the government to begin easing lockdowns, a reminder of how even with a highly effective vaccination campaign it will take time for life to return to normal. Adding to the uncertainty is the emergence of new Covid-19 variants that might have some resistance to existing vaccines.

“The preliminary data looks promising and our confidence in the data will get better as more time passes,” said Jeremy Brown, a specialist in respiratory diseases who is a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises the British government.

In a further positive signal, scientists at the University of Oxford said preliminary research showed the vaccine developed with AstraZeneca PLC caused a reduction in transmission of the virus by 67% after a single dose.

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Covid-19 admissions England

Britain’s vaccination drive, which got underway in December, has proved a bright spot for a country that is being ravaged by the virus. Covid-19 has killed more people in Britain than anywhere else in Europe. Repeated lockdowns have decimated the economy, which has performed worse than that of any other Group of Seven developed nation.

But a government decision to invest early in the pandemic in hundreds of millions of vaccine doses from multiple pharmaceutical companies is paying dividends. After rapid signoff from regulators, the U.K. prioritized injecting medical workers and the most elderly patients before working down a setlist of those deemed most vulnerable to Covid-19.

So far, about 90% of people of age 80 and over and more than half of those over 70 in England have received a vaccine. The British government is on track to vaccinate all of those over 50 by the end of spring if supplies hold up. Only Israel and the United Arab Emirates have administered shots to a greater proportion of their populations, according to research conducted by Our World in Data.

Public Health England, a health agency, is expected to soon publish preliminary vaccination efficacy data. “The initial data that we are getting are very encouraging,” said Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI who is leading a study to track the impact of vaccines on people with pneumonia in the two largest hospitals in Bristol, southwest England.

“About 14 days after the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, there’s a clear trend towards both protection against getting a positive test and, in our data for Bristol, towards being hospitalized,” he said.

The data is still hazy. It takes up to three weeks for the vaccines to offer protection so it is still early to draw conclusions. The cohorts currently receiving the inoculations also provide complicated test cases: They are mostly over 80 and cautious about exposure to Covid-19, or health-care workers who are far more exposed to the virus than the average person.

Further muddying the waters is that Britain went into lockdown in early January, making it harder to discern whether the extent of the drop in infections is due to vaccines or social distancing. “In data terms, it is a mess,” said Simon Kroll, a professor in the department of infectious disease at University College London who also sits on the JCVI.

England's hospital admissions

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England’s hospital admissions

The efficacy obtained from a clinical trial with “healthy young adults who’ve been highly selected and carefully observed is not the same that you get when you immunize a bunch of frail 80-year-olds and look at it in a non-randomized way with bias,” said Dr Finn. He added that an efficacy rate of 50% for a single vaccine dose in a real-world trial like this would be a good outcome.

Given that authorities were only ramping up vaccinations at the end of December and it takes weeks for the body to produce an immune response, it could be another month until it becomes clear if this decision was the right one, said Doug Brown, chief executive of the British Society for Immunology.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the government will provide a road map toward ending the lockdown after the most vulnerable are immunized. He hopes to lay that out to Parliament in the week of Feb. 22.

Mr. Johnson is aiming to reopen schools to some pupils at least by March 8, but it could be several more months before businesses such as restaurants and gyms are able to function as normal again. Officials worry that a new variant of the virus could scuttle these plans. A variant from South Africa that has proved to be more resistant to vaccines has seeded in the U.K., while another one already dominant in Britain has now been found in a handful of cases to have acquired a mutation that could make it more able to evade antibodies to the virus.

If the vaccine works as hoped, a policy trade-off will then ensue to keep the virus in check as society reopens. “As you start to relax, the gains of vaccination are offset by people mixing,” said Mike Tildesley, a professor at the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences. “So you need to ease slowly out of this.”

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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