The vaccines minister has said he is confident the UK will continue to receive its deliveries of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab after the European Union threatened to block vaccine exports.
Nadhim Zahawi said the UK’s vaccination programme was still on track, including offering all adults a first dose by the autumn and 15 million of the most vulnerable a jab by February 15.
Asked whether the EU could prevent Pfizer vials leaving its borders, Mr Zahawi told Sky News: “No, I’m confident that the Pfizer vaccine will be delivered.
“Pfizer have made sure that they have always delivered for us, they will continue to do so.
“They have made a very important announcement on the equitable supply of the whole world, including the European Union, and I’m sure they will deliver for the European Union, the United Kingdom and for the rest of the world.
“We have got 367 million vaccines that we have ordered from seven different suppliers, so I’m confident we will meet our target and continue to vaccinate the whole of the adult population by the autumn.”
Facing criticism of a slow rollout in the EU, the European Commission last night threatened to impose controls on vaccines.
European health commissioner Stella Kyriakides accused AstraZeneca, which works with Oxford University on its vaccine, of failing to give a valid explanation for failing to deliver doses to the bloc.
Warning that the EU “will take any action required to protect its citizens and rights”, she said in a broadcast address that an “export transparency mechanism” will be installed “as soon as possible”.
Discussions with @AstraZeneca today resulted in dissatisfaction with the lack of clarity and insufficient explanations. EU Member States are united: vaccine developers have societal and contractual responsibilities they need to uphold.
— Stella Kyriakides (@SKyriakidesEU) January 25, 2021
She said: “In the future, all companies producing vaccines against Covid-19 in the EU will have to provide early notification whenever they want to export vaccines to third countries.”
The Pfizer vaccine is manufactured in Europe but the bulk of the AstraZeneca vaccine is manufactured in the UK.
Number 10 said it was not expecting vaccine supply levels to change, with the Prime Minister’s official spokesman saying: “AstraZeneca are committed to delivering two million doses a week to the UK and we are not expecting any changes to that.
“I was asked earlier this week about the Pfizer vaccine and I said supplies will be lower this month and next as it upgrades its factory, but it will then increase production in March.
“Projection of volumes of delivery remain the same for that period.”
And NHS England chief Sir Simon Stevens told MPs that the uproar was due to limited supplies of vaccines.
“Of course there’s a supply shortage, and we’ve done very well in this country to get the supply we have available to us, the question is how do we use it to best effect,” he said.
Earlier, Mr Zahawi admitted that supplies of vaccines “are tight”, telling BBC Breakfast: “It’s lumpy and bumpy, it gets better and stabilises and improves going forward.”
— European Commission 🇪🇺 (@EU_Commission) January 25, 2021
But he declined to spell out that he had received guarantees of the number of doses the UK would receive from Pfizer.
Mr Zahawi also dismissed reports from Germany that AstraZeneca’s vaccine may only be 8% effective in over-65s as “nonsense”.
A Phase 3 Lancet study published in December from AstraZeneca and Oxford University said older age groups had been recruited later into the study so “efficacy data in these cohorts are currently limited by the small number of cases, but additional data will be available in future analyses”.
In that particular analysis, only 12% of people were aged over 55.
Previous work published in November included findings for 160 people aged 56 to 69 years and 240 people aged 70 years and older.
This found that all age groups, including older people, had an immune response to the vaccine after two doses.
It is understood that regulators have received even more data since then.
Mr Zahawi told Good Morning Britain he could “reassure the over-65s in this country that that (reports suggesting 8% efficacy) is not the case.
“We don’t know where this unsubstantiated report comes from, it’s not true.
“This 8% figure is complete nonsense.
“So, I would absolutely rely on the JCVI of the United Kingdom and… one of the best regulators in the world, the MHRA in terms of efficacy.”
He said for over-65s the vaccine also produces “almost 100% protection from severe infection from the virus, so it’s an excellent vaccine, clearly one that the EU also wants to get sufficient supplies of.”
Number 10 said later that the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, had told the Cabinet that clinical trials “showed similar immune responses in both younger and older adults”.
A spokesman for AstraZeneca said: “Reports that the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine efficacy is as low as 8% in adults over 65 years are completely incorrect.
“In the UK, the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) supported use in this population and MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) included this group without dose adjustment in the authorisation for emergency supply.
“In November, we published data in The Lancet demonstrating that older adults showed strong immune responses to the vaccine, with 100% of older adults generating spike-specific antibodies after the second dose.”