COVID-19: UK COVID Vaccine Programme Leading the World
It is fair to say that in the past couple of years, whether it be about Brexit or COVID-19, there has been lots of negative press and uncertainty. At times, it has felt like bad news story after bad news story in the midst of a cold and damp winter, and there has been little to bolster the mood and sentiment of the British people. For this reason, it is all the more important that we acknowledge and celebrate any positive news. The success of the UK’s vaccine programme certainly fits into this category. The harsh reality is that the UK has experienced the highest COVID death rate in the world, on a per capita basis. While New Zealand has not reported a single COVID death since September 2020, we have seen an average of nearly 1,000 people dying each day with the virus; a stark contrast indeed. In this article, we will discuss why the UK’s COVID vaccine programme is such a cause for optimism and positivity, and why we may emerge from the pandemic stronger because of it.
Optimism Sorely Needed with The World’s Highest Death Rate
We don’t want to dwell too much on the fact the UK has the worst COVID death rate in the world, but doing so really highlights why positive news offers such a contrast, and hence a basis for robust optimism. Research by the Oxford-based research platform Our World in Data shows with painful clarity that with a death rate of 935 on average per day, no other country in the world has a higher COVID death rate. The Czech Republic did have the highest rate (16.32 per million people), but we moved into the first position on 11th January 2021 (16.55 per million people). The third-highest rate has been seen in Portugal, with a death rate of 14.82 per million people, followed by Slovakia, Lithuania, Sweden, and Slovenia.
Despite the UK’s high COVID-19 fatality rate, it is now some cautious hope that we are over the peak for this third wave. Speaking in mid-January, Professor Chris Whitty said, “We expect that the peak of infection has already happened in some parts of the country, particularly the south-east, east and London”. This appears to have been borne out as of early February 2021, as while death rates are still high (though falling slowly due to the lag between infection and mortality), infection rates have plummeted to around 17,000 per day from a high of 68,000 in early January 2021.
UK Leading the World in The COVID Vaccine Roll-Out
While the UK has the highest COVID death rate, it also has one of the highest COVID vaccination rates (14.9), third only to Israel (58.8) and the UAE (34.8) on a per 100 people basis. By comparison, other countries in Europe have much lower rates of vaccinations, with Germany on 3.1 and France at 2.4 per 100 people. China is also very low, at only 1.7 per 100 people. For the UK, this means that around ten million people have received a form of vaccination, suggesting that the target of vaccinating 15 million by mid-February is possible.
There are several reasons why the UK has been able to vaccinate so many of the most vulnerable so quickly. One reason is that it was fast to sign deals with big pharmaceutical companies, often much earlier than other larger countries, and the EU in particular. As a case in point, it is believed that the UK signed a deal with Astra Zeneca three months before the EU, and hence has received a large supply earlier. This was confirmed by AstraZeneca's chief executive, Pascal Soriot, who stated that because of this head start, the UK has had "an extra three months to fix all the UK glitches we experienced".
Other reasons for the UK’s high performance in the ongoing covid vaccine roll-out programme include:
- Early regulatory approval – the UK’s medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on 2nd December, before any other country in Europe. Several others have been approved since, including the Astra Zeneca and Moderna vaccines.
- Increased production capacity – before the pandemic, the UK had little production capacity for vaccines, however, due to large scale investment, this has increased markedly.
- Prioritising the first dose – this is perhaps one of the biggest risks (albeit highly calculated) that was widely criticised internationally, but appears to have paid off. The calculation made by the British was that while we could administer the first and second doses within the guideline timescales recommended by the drug manufacturers, delaying the second dose would mean that more people would benefit overall, but with possible lower overall efficacy levels. Research now shows this strategy is valid, as the Oxford vaccine appears to provide 76% protection for up to 12 weeks after the first dose is administered. This supports the justification for increasing the second jab interval to three months. The Oxford research also shows that delaying the second vaccine actually increases the efficacy of the jab to 82.4% from 54.9% if boosted under six weeks after the first.
More Reasons for Optimism
It is all too easy to feel increasingly pessimistic due to the media coverage of covid, but the fact is the progress we are making is remarkable. From over-the-counter medications which may stop the virus being contracted, to high-tech genetic surveillance designed to detect new strains ensuring that new versions of the vaccine will be updated to provide ongoing protection, and improved in-hospital treatments, there is much to be upbeat about. Professor Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford vaccine team, is now hopeful that the vaccine virus will evolve into a less dangerous form, similar to a cold. He explained the virus is “trying to escape from human immunity, and that’s whether it’s from vaccines or from infection”. He went on to say, “I think that’s telling us about what’s to come — which is a virus that continues to transmit, but hopefully, that will be like other coronaviruses that are around us all the time, which cause colds and mild infections”. “Their whole raison d’etre is to be able to transmit between people — but we will have built up enough immunity to prevent the other severe disease that we’ve been seeing over the last year”. Let us all hope that Professor Pollard’s words are borne out in reality by this time next year.
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