COVID vaccination could begin by Christmas, with first patients protected 5-6 weeks later

A UK COVID-19 vaccination programme could be underway by Christmas, with the first in line including care home residents, healthcare staff and over-80s reaching maximum protection 5-6 weeks later, the government's deputy chief medical officer has said.

COVID-19 vaccine (Photo: Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images)
COVID-19 vaccine (Photo: Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images)

At a Downing St press conference following the announcement of initial results from a phase 3 trial of a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech that found 'a vaccine efficacy rate above 90%', deputy CMO Professor Jonathan Van Tam said he was 'hopeful that we could begin to see some vaccine by Christmas'.

The government has urged caution over the vaccine results, with prime minister Boris Johnson warning 'these are very early days' and that the UK cannot yet rely on the potential vaccine as a solution to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Professor Van Tam compared the announcement of the early findings to a footballer having scored the first penalty in a cup final penalty shoot-out. 'It tells you the goalkeeper can be beaten,' he said.

COVID-19 pandemic

Professor Van Tam warned that he did not see the vaccine making 'any difference' to the current wave of the pandemic underway across the UK.

Howver, he said that the findings were positive not only for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, but many others in development, because 'almost all' target the same protein.

GPonline reported last week on details of an enhanced service deal between the BMA and NHS England that will see one practice in each primary care network area ready to provide COVID vaccinations from as early as 1 December.

The deal makes clear that practices administering the jab should prepare for two doses per patient - and Professor Van Tam confirmed that 'all but one of the vaccines that are the likely big-name contenders' require two doses to provide protection.

Two-dose vaccine

The Pfizer vaccine results revealed two doses were administered 21 days apart - but Professor Van Tam said the gap between doses for potential vaccines 'varies from 21 and 28 days apart'.

He added that experts expected full protection from the vaccine to be achieved 14 days after the second dose - either five or six weeks after the initial dose.

Professor Van Tam said that from spring, the vaccine could mean the UK is able to look 'to a much better horizon than we have in front of us now'.

However, he warned that although findings released to date show that the vaccine can prevent illness caused by the Sars-CoV-2 virus, it remained unclear whether it could stop asymptomatic infection and therefore the community spread of the virus.

Vaccine approval

Prime minister Boris Johnson told the press conference: 'If and when a vaccine is approved we will be ready to use it.'

He said the government had ordered 40m doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, enough for a 'UK-wide, NHS-led programme of vaccination' to cover a third of the UK population. The manufacturer has suggested 50m doses could be available worldwide by the end of this year.

Guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation in September suggested care home residents and staff could be first in line for vaccination, with healthcare staff and patients aged over 80 next.

Responding to the early vaccine results, BMA GP committee England chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'GPs and their teams know how vital a safe, effective vaccine will be in defeating COVID-19, and we are all encouraged by this breakthrough – which brings widespread protection a step closer.

'With their proven track record of mass immunisation campaigns and strong relationships within their communities, GPs, practice nurses and other key staff are the right people to be leading this campaign once vaccines become available.

'With a number of approval processes still to go, we are a long way from guaranteeing that vaccinations in local surgeries will begin in December – but practices, working together in their areas, will stand ready.

'We know this will be a significantly challenging undertaking, particularly as staff are already struggling with ever-increasing workloads and staff burnout from the first wave of the pandemic. Therefore, practices will need support both nationally and locally, as well as patience and understanding from the public as they embark on this unprecedented campaign.'

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