Health officials have warned that supply “delays” mean the Covid vaccination programme is only set to hit its target pace in the second half of this month, narrowing the chances of hitting the goal of protecting more than 13 million vulnerable people by 15 February.
AstraZeneca, which is overseeing the manufacture of the newest vaccine, claims it has over 3m doses. But government sources said talks are ongoing with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) about the need to speed up safety checks of batches, which have taken up to 20 days.
Boris Johnson highlighted the checks as a “rate-limiting factor” in Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference.
It means the immunisation rate of at least 2m weekly vaccinations may not be met until the week after next, officials said. The MHRA countered that it has taken steps to speed up “without compromising quality and safety”. A spokesperson said: “We are working closely with the manufacturer, AstraZeneca, to ensure that batches of the vaccine are released as quickly as possible.”
It said biological medicines such as vaccines were “very complex” and independent quality and safety testing has to be carried out on batches by the National Institute of Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC).
By Tuesday 1.3 million people had been immunised across the UK, including almost a quarter of the over-80s, Johnson said. Most of these had the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which was approved in early December.
Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, was pressed by MPs in a call on Monday for a schedule of vaccine supplies but reportedly declined saying “manufacturing needs to stabilise”.
The Guardian understands AstraZeneca is only on course to increase its manufacturing capacity to 2m weekly doses by mid-January, which means the harder-to-handle Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is likely to be a critical part of the first weeks of the vaccine campaign.
Any slow start to the rollout of the easier-to-store Oxford/AstraZeneca jab is likely to pile pressure on GPs tasked with delivery. They warned on Tuesday that routine checkups for people with stable health conditions and appointments would have to be cancelled if they are to dedicate themselves to the vaccine campaign. The first 530,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are being administered this week from hospitals and some GPs surgeries.
“GPs need to be given the flexibility to let them focus on the vaccination campaign as a priority, and there must be honesty around what services will need to be paused to allow this to happen,” said Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee.
“The challenge is going to be doing everything at once,” said Dr Michael Mulholland, vice chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners. “We need a larger workforce.” Talks to reduce the paperwork needed to bring back former nurses and doctors are under way.
By the end of this week there will be 775 GP-led vaccination sites across England but there are calls for all of the UK’s 8,000 GP surgeries to get supplies.
“Primary care will be able to deliver at least 1m doses and hospitals and the other sites will do the other million,” Mulholland said. “The sites are set up, but now we need the vaccine. We haven’t been told there is an awful lot of AstraZeneca coming through yet.”
AstraZeneca has told the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) it will supply at least 20m doses by the end of March as part of a commitment to deliver 100m by the end of the year, but the government has issued no details of when supplies will be released. Pfizer/BioNTech is expected to provide 40m doses.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is being made in laboratories in Oxford and at Keele University in Staffordshire. Staff at Oxford Biomedica are working around the clock and a spokesperson said it was producing batches “on time”.
“Growing cells is basically the process,” a spokesperson said. “We are effectively adding a bit of the virus that can make all the cells we have grown into vaccine.” Staff have been increased from 550 to more than 650, mostly working on the vaccine.
The DHSC said that after the over-70s, clinically vulnerable, care home residents and health and social care workers have been offered one dose, the programme will move to all over-50s.
They believe that without hitches that could mean by April almost all those with a more than a slight chance of dying from Covid will have received at least one shot.