The coronavirus vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca was authorized on Wednesday for emergency use in the U.K., marking another step in the global battle against the pandemic.
The shot is expected to be rolled out next week and will be added to a Covid-19 immunization program started by Britain in December with the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine. About 600,000 people in the U.K. have received the Pfizer inoculation, according to government statistics.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper than others and does not need to be kept at ultra-low temperatures required by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
In a statement, AstraZeneca said the first doses of the vaccine were being released Wednesday “so that vaccinations may begin early in the New Year.”
It added that it “aims to supply millions of doses in the first quarter” as part of its deal with the U.K. government to supply up to 100 million doses in total. As a two-dose vaccine, the agreement means up to 50 million people in the U.K., which has a population of around 66 million, could be inoculated.
However, the U.K. government said in a statement Wednesday that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises it on immunization programs, had recommended that the “priority should be to give as many people in at-risk groups their first dose, rather than providing the required two doses in as short a time as possible.”
“Everyone will still receive their second dose and this will be within 12 weeks of their first. The second dose completes the course and is important for longer term protection,” it added.
U.K. government minister Michael Gove said Monday that the approval of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine could accelerate the lifting of strict lockdowns in the country, which effectively canceled Christmas festivities for millions.
Cases have surged in London and southern England with significant pressure being placed on hospitals. A new coronavirus variant found in the U.K. is reportedly more transmissible and has led to travel restrictions for people wanting to leave the country.
“Today is an important day for millions of people in the U.K. who will get access to this new vaccine,” AstraZeneca’s CEO Pascal Soriot said in a statement. “It has been shown to be effective, well-tolerated, simple to administer and is supplied by AstraZeneca at no profit.”
AstraZeneca’s vaccine is a viral vector inoculation that is based on a weakened version of a common cold virus that causes infections in chimpanzees. It is designed to prime the immune system to attack the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, if it later infects the body.
Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet medical journal, told CNBC in December that these advantages meant it could be used around the globe more effectively.
“The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is the vaccine right now that is going to be able to immunize the planet more effectively, more rapidly than any other vaccine we have,” Horton said, adding that it was important to think about vaccine immunization on a global scale “because even if we immunize one country, the threat then is you reintroduce the virus from another country that is not protected.”
Confusion around its trial data in November led to some criticism of AstraZeneca. The initial figures suggested that the vaccine can help reduce the spread of Covid-19, as well as prevent illness and death. That study also found it had an effectiveness of 62% for trial participants given two full doses, but 90% for a subgroup given half a dose followed by a full dose.
Chief of the White House’s Operation Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui, and others in the U.S. have expressed concern over the age group tested, saying the 90% efficacy was only shown for the lowest risk group, which numbered 2,741 people below age 55.
AstraZeneca said Wednesday that “additional safety and efficacy data for the vaccine will continue to accumulate from ongoing clinical trials.” It added that it continues to work with regulatory authorities around the world “to support their ongoing rolling reviews for emergency supply or conditional marketing authorisation during the health crisis.”
It added that it is seeking emergency use listing from the World Health Organization “for an accelerated pathway to vaccine availability” in low- and middle-income countries.