Any coronavirus vaccine available from Europe before the end of the year will be able to make it to the UK before Brexit, the manufacturing lead for the UK’s vaccine taskforce has said.
While the UK leaving Europe adds “complexity” to the process, robust plans are in place to mitigate Brexit.
The first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine have already arrived from Belgium, and if approved, the initial doses of the Oxford jab are due to be dispatched from Germany to the UK.
Later batches of the Oxford vaccine will be manufactured in the UK.
Ian McCubbin, manufacturing lead for the taskforce, said: “All the vaccines that will be available prior to Christmas, and the end of the year, will get to the UK so that we get them into the country while we’re still in Europe
“In the very very short term we will bring these vaccines into the country before Brexit actually happens.”
Speaking at a press briefing, Steve Bates, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association, added: “I think in terms of Brexit it’s a known risk that we’ve been managing in this programme, along with many, many others.
“Of course, it adds complexity to the process, but there is a robust plan for alternative routes, and mitigation for those, in place.
“They’ve not being tested yet but we’ve been working on them for some time.”
The UK has secured more than 350 doses of seven different vaccines, including 40 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and 100 million doses of the jab developed by Oxford and AstraZeneca.
Kate Bingham, chairwoman of the vaccine taskforce was asked if more doses of any vaccines could be bought, if necessary.
She replied: “It depends by contract. So some we have options to extend and others we’ve got fixed numbers of doses.”
The members of the taskforce were also asked if committing to so many of the Oxford doses meant the UK had tooled itself up to manufacture the less popular vaccines.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have both shown efficacy of more than 90% and are based on mRNA technology.
Conventional vaccines are produced using weakened forms of the virus, but mRNAs use only the virus’s genetic code.
An mRNA vaccine is injected into the body where it enters cells and tells them to create antigens which prepare the immune system to fight coronavirus.
The Oxford vaccine is an adenoviral vaccine, which uses a harmless, weakened version of a common virus which causes a cold in chimpanzees.
Clive Dix, deputy chairman of the taskforce, who is due to become chairman as Ms Bingham’s six month term comes to an end this month, said: “In hindsight, you know, if we decided to go with RNA we would have got the BioNTech Pfizer vaccine now, we certainly wouldn’t have got enough to vaccinate everybody.”
He added: “There was a decision to be made around what do we want – do we want vaccines early, that will protect people as soon as possible and save lives, or do we want to wait…and gild the lily.
“And you don’t gild the lily at times like this.
“What you do is you go for what’s there and what’s practical, and the Oxford vaccine was practical.
“We knew we could – if we put all manufacturing skills together in the UK – we could get it onshore in the UK and get it into patients as soon as possible.”
While the experts agreed that mRNA vaccines are the most exciting thing that has happened in vaccinology in a long time, they said a lot is still not known about them.
While they have been shown to protect against disease, it is not known if they stop infectivity, or transmission, and little is known about their long-term safety.
Ms Bingham said that in the new year trials will begin to look at heterologous boost – whether the combination of two different vaccines can be more effective than just one, or mean the doses can go further.
She said: “We’ll try priming with one vaccine and boosting with another.
“And that will be again part of the clinical exploration to see can you broaden and deepen and strengthen the immune response by mixing and matching.
“And again, that would be potentially with mRNA but it could also be obviously with the other vaccine formats as well.”
The comments come as the vaccine taskforce released a report looking at its work and achievements six months after it was set-up to help in the fight against Covid-19.
According to the report, the taskforce has worked decisively and at great pace in the face of the pandemic.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “The approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use in the UK marks a momentous step in our fight against Covid-19.
“I am hugely grateful for the hard work and dedication of the vaccine taskforce, under Kate Bingham’s leadership, which has brought us to this point in challenging circumstances, representing the best the Government and Civil Service can do – working with businesses, experts and the public to tackle a common problem at incredible pace.
“The country owes them a debt of gratitude.
“But we still have some way to go and everyone needs to keep following the rules to keep the virus under control.”