Covid vaccine: How much supply does the UK have and what’s behind the shortage of dosages?

NHS and government officials aiming to deliver two million vaccinations a week

Samuel Lovett@samueljlovett
Monday 04 January 2021 21:18
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Man becomes first in world to receive Oxford vaccine

The UK has now licensed two coronavirus vaccines and has begun administering doses throughout the four nations.

Research has shown that the NHS will need to carry two 2 million vaccinations a week to prevent a third wave of Covid-19, but supply shortages have raised concerns over whether the government will be able to meet this target.

So, how many vaccine doses do we have on the way? And how much is ready to go?

Pre-ordered supplies

The UK’s vaccine taskforce has put together a portfolio of seven different candidates, securing a total of 357 million doses – enough to vaccinate the British population twice over.

So far, two of those seven vaccines have been approved for emergency use by the the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency: the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs. The other candidates remain in development.

Up to 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have been ordered, while 100 million doses of the Oxford jab are set to be delivered to the UK.

Originally, the government said that 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine were due by the end of 2020 – a target which was missed. 

For the Oxford vaccine, Downing Street said in May of last year that the country would have 30 million doses available by September in preparation for the national rollout. 

That figure was later corrected by the vaccine taskforce to 4 million for the end of 2020. However, this target was also not met.

Last week, health secretary Matt Hancock said that the UK had just 530,000 doses of the Oxford for its nationwide rollout on 4 January.

How much vaccine is ready to go?

Pfizer said the number of doses it has now sent to the UK is “in the millions”, while the Department of Health and Social Care said the government had received 22 deliveries of the vaccine as of 25 December.

It is not clear how many doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech candidate are currently available to the population, or how much will be provided in the coming weeks.

Pascal Soriot, the chief executive of AstraZeneca, said last Wednesday that the manufacturer was able to produce “1 million doses and beyond” per week of the Oxford vaccine.

Although 530,000 doses are ready for use as of 4 January, the government has said this figure will rise to the “tens of millions” by the end of March.

What’s behind the lack of supplies?

According to reports, enough of the Oxford vaccine has been produced to provide 4 million doses. However, it’s claimed that UK has not yet secured enough “fill and finish” supplies to scale up the rollout.

A lack of material such as vials and specialised bungs has supposedly hampered efforts to get the vaccine bottled up and distributed throughout the four nations.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, said last month: “The only thing that is going to slow us down is batches of vaccines becoming available. Many of you know already that it’s not just about vaccine manufacture. It’s about fill and finish, which is a critically short resource across the globe.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson has also suggested a limiting factor in expanding the UK's vaccine rollout is waiting for batches of the jab to be tested.

Ministers have said the NHS has the capacity to deliver 2 million doses a week of the Oxford vaccine once it receives supplies from the manufacturers. But the PM said the issue is not supply or staff, but waiting for batch approval.

He explained: "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."

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said it had “scaled up” its review process for each vaccine batch.

“The MHRA is fully scaled up to do the batch testing that’s so important for confidence as the new products come through,” said Dr June Raine, chief executive of the agency.

“It's a supply chain that goes right back from the manufacturer, right through to MHRA, and then on to the clinical bedside or where the vaccines are delivered, so we are a step on the road but our capacity is there, I'm very clear about that.”

How many people have been vaccinated so far?

As of 4 January, a total of 944,539 people across the UK had received their first vaccine dose.

The government says this figure will rapidly rise in the coming weeks and months once more batches from the different vaccine manufacturers have been quality checked.

It is hoped that all at-risk groups will have been vaccinated using the Oxford or BioNTech-Pfizer candidate by the end of April, helping to ease the strain on the NHS amid a deluge of hospitalisations driven in part by the new coronavirus variant.

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