A breakthrough in COVID-19 vaccinations means there is a “70-80%” chance the UK will be returning to normality by Easter – as long as authorities do not “screw up” distribution of the jab, a top a scientific adviser has said.
Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of medicine at University of Oxford, told MPs the announcement by Pfizer and BioNTech suggested there could be two or three coronavirus vaccines by the new year.
He said he was “quite optimistic” that most of the country’s vulnerable people could have jabs administered by spring – heralding a resumption of normal life.
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It came as the government said it has asked the NHS to prepare to begin rolling the vaccine out by in December.
During a Commons session on coronavirus on Tuesday, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt asked him: “What are your percentage chances in this situation of getting to Easter and having vaccinated the vulnerable, the most vulnerable parts of our population, so that post-Easter we could think about resuming to normality?”
Prof Bell replied: “I think we’ve got a 70, 80 per cent chance of doing that.
“That’s provided they don’t screw up the distribution of the vaccine, that’s not my job. But provided they don’t screw that up, it’ll all be fine.”
US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its vaccine partner BioNTech released initial results that suggested their jab was 90% effective at protecting people from COVID-19.
Prof Bell described the announcement as a “massive step forward”, adding: “It also signals, I think, that many of the other vaccines that have the same immunogenicity are likely also to be efficacious.
A COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech has been found to be 90% effective
“So I wouldn’t be surprised if we hit the new year with two or three vaccines, all of which could be distributed.
“And that’s why I’m quite optimistic of getting enough vaccinations done in the first quarter of next year that by spring things will start to look much more normal than they do now.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the vaccine announcement as “promising news” but, with England currently less than a week into a month-long lockdown, warned it was only “one step of many we need to get out of this and to tackle this pandemic once and for all”.
“The critical thing is that we all keep our resolve on the measures that are in place now,” he added.
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However, Mr Hancock revealed he had asked the NHS, which will be supported by the Armed Forces, to “be ready from the start of December” for the deployment of a vaccine.
He said: “Of course there are many hurdles that still need to be gone over and we haven’t seen the full safety data and obviously that is critical and we won’t deploy a vaccine unless we can be confident in its clinical safety.
“But we also do need to be ready should a vaccine be licensed and get through all those hurdles and ready to roll it out.”
Mr Hancock said care home residents and staff, NHS and social care staff, and then elderly people would be first in line for vaccination.
But the health secretary declined to add his voice to those who have said life could be back to normal by spring next year.
Boris Johnson on Tuesday offered his “huge thanks” to Kate Bingham, the head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, for securing 40 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine.
Ms Bingham, the wife of a Conservative minister, has recently been under pressure after it emerged she has spent £670,000 of taxpayers’ cash on a team of PR consultants.
Meanwhile, the British Medical Association has said coronavirus vaccines could be available from GPs and large drive-through sites 12 hours a day and seven days a week.
Family doctors are being given guidance on a new “directed enhanced service” that would go beyond their normal hours to deliver vaccines 8am to 8pm Monday to Sunday.
Patients are set to be given two vaccine doses – either 21 or 28 days apart.
The BMA said in its statement: “Vaccine availability will be limited to begin with, meaning only small numbers of vaccines may be given in December with most vaccinations taking place in early 2021.
But Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter, cautioned against being too confident in the 90% statistic.
He told Sky News: “There are questions still to answer, figures to be distilled… I want to know are you really sure?
“Because I don’t think the 90% figure tallies up very well. It depends on the number people exposed to the virus after receiving [the trial jab].
“These are the issues that need to be ironed out before we can say we have a successful vaccine with us.”
He said he was “as optimistic” about the Pfizer vaccine as “the many others in development” and that he expects there to be multiple successful vaccines in time.
Meanwhile, health experts said vaccines may be approved for use that are not as effective as the top performer in a bid to drive down the burden of coronavirus.
PM’s warning over potential vaccine
Government advisers said that even jabs with a lower efficacy in preventing COVID-19 could still have large population benefits in a public health emergency,
Scientists have also expressed concerns about how GPs will store vaccines as they must be kept at -80C.
They say many surgeries do not have freezers cold enough for them.
But Mr Hancock said: “Cold chain requirements are significant and do add to the logistical complications, but we have known about that cold chain requirement for many months now so it’s been part of our planning for some time.
“And so we have a good degree of confidence that that will be in place.”