Unlike Test and Trace, Operation Moonshot or pretty much any of the UK government’s other projects designed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, the vaccination drive appears to be going well and as planned.
Boris Johnson has set a target of getting a first dose of the jab to 15m people in the top priority groups – including all over-70s – by mid-February, and for every adult in the UK to be offered a first dose by September.
Based on the latest figures, an average of 393,031 first doses of vaccine would be needed each day in order to get there.
So it’s positive news that 491,970 people across the UK received their first dose on Saturday, taking the total to more than 6.3m.
To help keep it up, a further 32 vaccine sites are set to open across the country this week, including one at the museum made famous as the set of hit TV series Peaky Blinders.
Other sites roped into the vaccination effort include a race course, a show ground, a football stadium and a former Ikea store.
Brilliant. What’s the catch?
The government has repeatedly caveated any positive news about the vaccine rollout by emphasising that the supply of doses is the “limiting factor”.
Speaking on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Matt Hancock said: “It’s not a matter of logistics – the logistics can be organised.
“The challenge is the supply of vaccine. Supply is the rate-limiting factor.”
Johnson has repeatedly made similar comments, highlighting the limiting factor as waiting for batches of the jab to be quality approved.
Speaking earlier this month, he said: “We have the capacity. The issue is to do with supply of the vaccine.
“It’s not so much a manufacturing issue although that’s part of it. Each batch needs to be properly approved and quality controlled.”
Are they telling the truth?
Yes, it appears they are.
In terms of secured doses, the government has lined up 367m of the seven most promising vaccine candidates.
Three of these seven candidates have been approved, giving us – in theory – 157m doses, more than enough to give the required two doses to every single one of the UK’s 66.65m population.
- BioNTech/Pfizer (MHRA authorised) – 40m doses secured
- Oxford/Astra Zeneca (MHRA authorised) – 100m doses secured
- Moderna (MHRA authorised) – 17m doses secured
- Janssen (in phase 3 clinical trials) – 30m doses secured
- Novavax (in phase 3 clinical trials) – 60m doses secured
- GSK/Sanofi (in phase 1 and 2 clinical trials) – 60m doses secured
- Valneva (in phase 1 and 2 clinical trials) – 60m doses secured, with an option to acquire a further 130m if the vaccine is proven to be safe, effective and suitable
Brilliant. What’s the catch?
In short, there is a big difference between “securing” a dose and having in a syringe ready to jab into the arm of a grateful Brit.
So… how many doses do we actually have?
A very good question, and not one that is as easily answered as you might think.
The government has refused repeated requests to confirm the number of doses actually on UK soil and one manufacturer told HuffPost UK they could not release the information as the contract was “confidential”.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca UK vaccine
We know from a Commons Science and Technology Committee hearing earlier this month that AstraZeneca has released 1.1m doses to the UK and the aim is to reach two million doses a week in or before the middle of February.
Tom Keith-Roach, president of AstraZeneca UK, said: “We’re absolutely on track to do that and therefore deliver tens of millions of doses in the first quarter of the year.”
A report from the Daily Mail stated a further 15m doses were waiting at UK factories to be put into vials.
The Pfizer vaccine
When asked how many doses of the Pfizer vaccine had been released to the UK, the company told HuffPost UK deliveries were “on track”.
Beyond this, Pfizer was a bit vague, saying only that the UK would have its 40m doses “by the end of the year”, but it is understood they have delivered around five million so far.
The Moderna vaccine
Moderna failed to respond to multiple requests for information but Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director for the NHS in England, has said doses will “come to the UK for use in the coming months”.
So in total, the UK has around 21m doses, 6.3m of which have been administered, with enough left to reach the targets of vaccinating 15m people in the top priority groups.
Brilliant. What’s the catch?
There isn’t one. Yet.
We have enough doses as well as the infrastructure to give 15m people – plus six million more – one dose of the vaccine by mid-February.
But what about everyone else? And what about the vast majority of people who have only received one of the two doses they will need?
In other words, will we have enough once the initial supplies run out?
The government has sounded a bit less certain on this front than on the daily uptake figures, which Hancock regularly promotes on Twitter.
Earlier this month, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “I now have line of sight of deliveries all the way through until end of February, and [am] getting more confidence about March as well.”
What’s knocking Zahawi’s confidence?
This is where the supply issue comes in. Making a vaccine isn’t a process that can be rushed.
Mene Pangalos, executive vice president of biopharmaceuticals research and development at AstraZeneca, said earlier this month: “You have to grow cells and cells divide at a certain speed, and you can’t do any faster than the speed at which the cells divide.”
And this is only one step of the process.
Dr Beatrice Melinek, biochemical engineering research fellow at University College London, told HuffPost UK: “Each step is done in batch, meaning each step needs to be completed before the next step can start.
“The issue will be there’s not only the reaction itself involved, but all of the quality control that goes with it.”
Quality control is where the batch testing mentioned by Johnson comes into play.
Doses can be made, packaged and delivered, but they have to be proven safe. As you’d hope in the world of pharmaceuticals, this is a very strict process.
Batch testing can take weeks and again, can’t be rushed. Kate Bingham, former chair of the UK Vaccines Taskforce, told MPs earlier this month: “You can’t do those batch testing experiments until you’ve got the final commercial batches to test.
“We’ve absolutely compressed what we can but there is just a limit as to what can be done.”
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is understood to have taken on more staff to help speed this process up.
So how long before supplies that haven’t already been delivered make it to the UK?
When discussing the AstraZeneca vaccine, Pangalos said: “If you look in total, you’re talking about a three- to four-month process.”
What we don’t know, and what neither the manufacturers or the government is saying, is how much of each vaccine is at the various stages of this process.
Both Pfizer and AstraZeneca are in the process of ramping up production but in the case of the former this involves a temporary reduction in capacity while it upgrades its factory.
And while this will increase the total number of doses eventually available to the UK, it won’t speed up how quickly they get here.
Will we run out before they get here?
Based on what the manufacturers and the government have said publicly, we just don’t know.
Is there anything else I need to know?
The UK does have a huge ace up its sleeve – the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre that is currently being built in Harwell.
“This has been on the cards for a while and was originally planned to open next year,” Dr Stephen Morris, research fellow in vaccine process analytics at University College London, told HuffPost UK.
“It was designed as a platform for the likes of myself to test out new manufacturing technologies so it’s designed to be very flexible but now it’s been repurposed to some degree.
“That in theory will have enough manufacturing capacity to produce enough vaccine for the UK.”
But while it will increase the amount of vaccine the UK can produce, it won’t speed up how long they take to manufacture.