Britain began vaccinating its population with the COVID-19 shot developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca on Monday, touting a scientific “triumph” that puts it at the vanguard of the West in inoculating against the virus.
Britain, which is rushing to vaccinate its population faster than the United States and the rest of Europe, is the first country to roll out the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot though Russia and China have been inoculating their citizens for months.
Just under a month since Britain became the first country in the world to roll out the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech, dialysis patient Brian Pinker, 82, was first to get the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot at 0730 GMT.
“I am so pleased to be getting the COVID vaccine today and really proud that it is one that was invented in Oxford,” Pinker, a retired maintenance manager who has been having dialysis for kidney disease, said just a few hundred metres from where the vaccine was developed.
Pinker was looking forward to celebrating his 48th wedding anniversary with wife Shirley in February.
“The nurses, doctors and staff today have all been brilliant,” he said.
Britain, grappling with the world’s sixth worst death toll and one of the worst economic hits from the COVID crisis, has put more than a million COVID-19 vaccines into arms already – more than the rest of Europe put together, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.
“That’s a triumph of British science that we’ve managed to get where we are,” Hancock told Sky. “Right at the start, we saw that the vaccine was the only way out long term.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has secured 100 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine which can be stored at fridge temperatures between two to eight degrees, making it easier to distribute than the Pfizer shot.
Six hospitals in England are administering the first of around 530,000 doses Britain has ready. The programme will be expanded to hundreds of other British sites in coming days, and the government hopes it will deliver tens of millions of doses within months.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had administered 4.2 million first doses of COVID-19 vaccines as of Saturday morning and distributed 13.07 million doses.
But Israel is the world leader: more than a tenth of its population have had a vaccine and Israel is now administering more than 150,000 doses a day.
Britain became the first Western country to approve and roll out a COVID-19 vaccine, betting that getting ahead with a vaccine will allow it to exit the COVID crisis earlier than other countries, offering Johnson a rare opportunity to shine.
Other Western countries have taken a longer and more cautious approach to rolling out vaccines, though Russia and China have been inoculating their citizens for months with several different vaccines still undergoing late-stage trials.
China on Dec. 31. approved its first COVID-19 vaccine for general public use, a shot developed by an affiliate of state-backed pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm. The company said it is 79% effective against the virus.
Russia said on Nov. 24 its Sputnik V vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya Institute, was 91.4% effective based on interim late-stage trial results. It started vaccinations in August and has inoculated more than 100,000 people so far.
India approved the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on Sunday for emergency use.
One dose of caution was introduced by ITV political editor Robert Peston who said scientists are not fully confident that COVID-19 vaccines will work on a new variant of the coronavirus found in South Africa.
More than 75,000 people in the United Kingdom have died from COVID though a wider measure puts the death toll at 82,624 and cases are rising sharply, fuelled by a separate variant of the virus.
Johnson said on Sunday that tougher restrictions were likely to be introduced, even with millions of citizens already living under the strictest tier of rules.
England is currently divided into four different tiers of restrictions, depending on the prevalence of the virus, and Hancock said the rules in some parts of the country in Tier 3 were clearly not working.
Asked whether the government was considering imposing a new national lockdown, Hancock said: “We don’t rule anything out.”
The spread of the variant virus has also forced the government to change its approach to vaccination. Britain is now prioritising getting a first dose of a vaccine to as many people as possible over giving second doses. Delaying the distribution of second shots should help stretch the supply.
Andrew Pollard, the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group and chief investigator into the trial of the shot, also received the vaccine.
“This is a really critical moment. We are at the point of being overwhelmed by this disease,” he told BBC TV. “I think it gives us a bit of hope, but I think we’ve got some tough weeks ahead.”