Britain has authorized emergency use of a second Covid-19 vaccine, becoming the first country to greenlight an easy-to-handle shot that its developers hope will become the “vaccine for the world.”
The Department of Health said it had accepted a recommendation to authorize the vaccine developed by Oxford University and UK-based drugmaker AstraZeneca.
Britain has bought 100 million doses of the vaccine, and plans to begin injections Jan. 4.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK have already received a different vaccine, made by US drugmaker Pfizer and German firm BioNTech.
AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot said it was “an important day for millions of people in the UK who will get access to this new vaccine. It has been shown to be effective, well-tolerated, simple to administer and is supplied by AstraZeneca at no profit.”
Partial results from studies in almost 24,000 people in Britain, Brazil and South Africa suggest the shots are safe and about 70% effective for preventing illness from coronavirus infection.
That’s not as good as some other vaccine candidates, but Soriot recently told the Sunday Times newspaper that he was confident the vaccine would prove as effective as its rivals.
Coronavirus vaccines have typically been given in two doses, with an initial shot followed by a booster about three weeks later.
But in a change of approach, the British government said that with the AstraZeneca vaccine it would prioritize giving as many people as possible a single dose, which is believed to give a large measure of protection against the virus. It said people at the highest risk would get priority, and everyone would get a second jab within 12 weeks of the first.
“The rollout will start on Jan. 4 and will really accelerate into the first few weeks of next year,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told told Sky News.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be relied on in many countries because of its low cost, availability and ease of use. It can be kept in refrigerators rather than the ultra-cold storage some other vaccines require. The company has said it will sell it for $2.50 a dose and plans to make up to 3 billion doses by the end of 2021.
“We have a vaccine for the world,” said one study leader, Oxford’s Dr. Andrew Pollard.
The approval comes against a backdrop of soaring infections in the UK. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has surpassed the first peak of the outbreak in the spring, with authorities blaming a new, more transmissible variant of the virus, first identified in southeast England for the spike.
Pollard offered hope the newly approved vaccine will help.
“At the moment, there’s no evidence that the vaccines won’t work against the new variant,” Pollard told Radio 4. “But that is something which we have to look at. We can’t be complacent about this variant or perhaps future variants.”
Britain’s action likely means the World Health Organization will soon clear the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in a global effort to help poor countries, called COVAX. The initiative, led by WHO and the vaccines alliance GAVI, has secured access to at least 100 million doses of the vaccine, with options and other deals to buy more. But none can be distributed until green-lighted by WHO.
The U.N. health agency does not licence or regulate vaccines itself, but typically evaluates vaccines once they have been approved by an agency such as the UK regulator or the European Medicines Agency. WHO experts conduct their own evaluation of whether or not the risks of a vaccine outweigh its benefits and then make a recommendation for the shots to be “pre-qualified” so they can be bought by donors for developing countries.
Most coronavirus vaccines to be used in poorer countries likely will be made by the Serum Institute of India, which has been contracted by AstraZeneca to make 1 billion doses. In June, the pharmaceutical company announced that the Serum Institute would produce 400 million doses by the end of 2020 but as of early December, only about 50 million doses had been manufactured after production was halted several times.
In addition to the Serum Institute, AstraZeneca also has deals with vaccine makers in Brazil, South Africa and China to make the Oxford-developed vaccine for use in developing countries.