The head of the UK’s coronavirus vaccination taskforce has said he is optimistic that government will meet its target of vaccinating all over-50s by May.
No 10 confirmed on Friday that the vaccine programme was intended to reach all those over 50 and those aged 16 to 65 in at-risk groups by May, having previously said it aimed to do so “by the spring”.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Dr Clive Dix said: “I’m very optimistic we’ll definitely meet the May target. Every time we’ve been set an objective on the taskforce, we’ve met it, and we’ll work day and night to ensure we meet whatever target that’s feasible.”
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Friday that the government planned to offer all over-50s a first dose by May, but added that “lots of things have got to go right to hit that goal”.
Dix also said a vaccine-resistant variant was a possibility, but that the UK would be “ahead of the game”.
He said the UK was already tracking and predicting future variants in order to prepare vaccines before they had even appeared.
“The UK is probably at the forefront of surveying these variants. We have actually sequenced nearly 50% of all the viruses that have been sequenced in this pandemic at the Sanger centre in Cambridge,” he said.
“Taking that data, and having our scientists look very seriously at what’s emerging, where the mutants are occurring and what they might do to the proteins, we can kind of second guess mutations that haven’t even occurred yet and go ahead and make those [vaccines].”
Dix said the taskforce was working with the German manufacturer CureVac to set up a “library of future vaccines, just in small amounts” so that if a new variant does occur “we can just do a quick clinical study to make sure it works and then start manufacturing it”.
Asked if a coronavirus variant might emerge which does not respond to the current vaccines, Dix said this was of course possible.
“When it will occur and whether it will occur is one thing,” he said. “That’s what happened with flu, we get these pandemic threats with flu. We should learn from flu … I believe this virus will be very similar. It will last a long time, it will be travelling around the world in different places, it will be endemic in certain countries.
“I think there is the possibility but we will be ahead of the game. We’re not going to wait for it to happen. We now have capabilities in the UK to be responsive and that capability won’t just be for the use of the UK of course.”
Once the UK has enough vaccine doses, it plans to share doses with the rest of the world, Dix said.
“When [the manufacturers] are at full speed, and vaccines come through, if we don’t need them we won’t store them. We will help the world with them, and every other country will do the same,” he said.
The number of vaccinations given on Friday across the UK was 480,560, up more than 66,000 on last week. As of Friday, 16.4% of the UK population had received their first dose.