Nearly 1.5 million vaccinated in UK as health minister defends decision to space Covid-19 doses

Madam Lucy Airs receives a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at the Pentland Medical Practice in Currie, Scotland on Jan 7, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Britain's move to delay the second doses of Covid-19 vaccines will help save lives as more people will be able to get some initial protection, health minister Matt Hancock said on Thursday (Jan 7), defending a policy shift questioned by some scientists.

The abrupt change of tack on Dec 30 meant people who had been due to receive their second vaccine doses had their appointments cancelled in favour of scheduling more initial shots for others. Some scientists expressed doubts about the decision to alter proven dosing regimes.

Hancock said partial protection for more people would do more good than full protection for a select few.

"The justification is really clear and straightforward, which is that it saves more lives, and ultimately, that is the public health justification," Hancock told lawmakers.

"The data show that there is a significant protection from both the Oxford and the Pfizer jabs after the first dose."

In the United Kingdom, almost 1.5 million doses have been deployed.

But only 21,000 second doses of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech were given to people in the UK between Dec 29 - when the first people to be vaccinated received their boosters - and Jan 3.

The day after second vaccinations began, health officials said they would prioritise giving as many people as possible a first shot to offer some protection over the rollout of booster shots.

That means second shots will now be given up to 12 weeks after the first.

Asked by Reuters about people unnerved by the change in guidance who had appointments cancelled or rearranged, National Health Service England Chief Executive Simon Stevens said people should be reassured that they would get the second dose and be protected.

"Yes, people will get the second jabs, whether that's Pfizer or AstraZeneca," Stevens said at a news conference, adding that 12 days after the first dose, a person might have 90% or more of the benefit of the vaccination.

"It means that we're able to offer vaccination to many more people - twice as many people with that Pfizer dosing - over the next several weeks."

While AstraZeneca's shot was tested with different intervals between doses, Pfizer has said there is no data to demonstrate the efficacy of its first dose after 21 days.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes that by giving at least some protection to more than 13 million people in priority groups over the next six weeks, it will be possible to consider easing strict lockdown measures from mid-February.

After recording 52,618 new Covid-19 cases and 1,162 deaths within 28 days of a positive test for the virus, Johnson told a news conference on Thursday that the government was increasing the number of places where people could get vaccinated and the number of people who could give the vaccination.

On Wednesday, Britain had recorded 62,322 new coronavirus infections and 1,041 deaths.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.