The UK approved on Wednesday the coronavirus vaccine developed by University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, paving the way for its rollout at a time when the country is in the grip of its worst wave of infections, and offering an important endorsement that will likely be taken into account in India, where authorities reviewed the inoculation later in the day.
While the UK said it will begin administering the first shots from next week, Indians will likely need to wait a little longer since the Subject Expert Committee (SEC) of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) – which is vetting the data from safety and efficacy trials – said it is yet to reach a decision and a further meeting will be convened on Friday. The SEC decision is likely to factor in the approval by UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
The adenovirus vaccine is being manufactured by Pune‘s Serum Institute of India (SII). Described as a “vaccine for the world”, it is the most likely candidate to meet a large chunk of India’s vaccination needs because it is cheaper, easier to store and transport, and likely to be more available than the two other vaccines so far approved in other countries — mRNA ones developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
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UK’s MHRA, on December 2, approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, making it the first inoculation to be approved anywhere in the world after due scientific process. The Moderna vaccine was approved by the US on December 18.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who spent several days in intensive care with Covid earlier this year, called the approval to the Oxford vaccine a “truly fantastic news” and “a triumph for British science”.
“We will now move to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible,” he added.
On Tuesday, 53,135 new Covid cases were recorded in the UK — the highest single day rise since mass testing began – as well as 414 more deaths, reinforcing the need for the country to speed up its vaccination process.
London, which is among areas in south-east England where a new, more transmissible variant has been spreading, registered 14,875 new cases. The UK’s state-funded hospital system has come close to being overwhelmed, with 21,286 Covid-19 patients, forcing some hospitals to cancel other procedures.
In New Delhi, the SEC of CDSCO held its second meeting on coronavirus vaccines, attended by representatives from SII, which has sought the emergency use approval. Pfizer-BioNTech and Bharat Biotech too sought approvals, which was discussed at the meeting.
“…Further time was requested on behalf of Pfizer. The additional data and information presented by SII and Bharat Biotech Pvt. Ltd. was perused and analysed by the SEC. The analysis of the additional data and information is going on. SEC will convene again on 1st January 2021 (Friday),” said a statement by the government. The SEC had asked SII and Bharat Biotech for information December 9.
The Union government has announced that India targets to vaccinate at least 300 million high-risk people against Covid-19 by July next year. It is currently drafting a list of recipients to be put on the priority list.
In the UK, the priority list includes about 25 million people, the BBC reported. Till December 24, the last date for which data was available, according to Our World in Data, 800,000 of these people had received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and chief investigator of the Oxford Vaccine Trial, said: “The regulator’s assessment that this is a safe and effective vaccine is a landmark moment, and an endorsement of the huge effort from a devoted international team of researchers and our dedicated trial participants.”
Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca chief executive, said the company could provide the UK with up to 2 million doses a week, with the first doses arriving on Wednesday or Thursday: “Vaccination will start next week and we will get to 1 million a week and beyond that two million a week very rapidly.”
UK health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Because we’ve got enough of this vaccine on order to vaccinate the whole population – we’ve got 100 million doses on order – add that to the 30 million doses of Pfizer and that’s enough for two doses for the entire population”.
But the import of UK’s decision is seen as relevant for other countries because the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper than its rivals and easier to store or move. The ultra-cold or freezer temperature storage required by other vaccines is “very impractical” in developing countries, said Dr Gillies O’Bryan-Tear, chair of policy and communications for Britain’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, Reuters reported. It means the AstraZeneca one “may reach more parts of the world than the Pfizer one,” he said.
The company has also said it will sell it for $2.50 a dose and plans to make up to 3 billion doses by the end of 2021.