Matt Hancock was today urged to ensure every vulnerable Briton gets their second dose of Oxford University’s coronavirus vaccine within 12 weeks amid fears they may receive less protection if their top-up is delayed.
A landmark study last night showed a single dose of the jab — made alongside drug giant AstraZeneca — was 76 per cent effective at preventing coronavirus symptoms after three months.
But researchers admitted they are still not sure whether the single dose offers any protection past the 12-week mark — when the second jab must be given under the UK’s roll-out plans.
Layla Moran, the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Covid, called on the Health Secretary to ‘guarantee’ the most vulnerable will not miss out on doses.
‘To ensure no one is left behind, the Government should ring-fence vaccine supplies for the clinically vulnerable right now, while it has stocks, to prevent a crisis further down the line,’ she told MailOnline.
And virologist Professor Lawrence Young appealed to ministers to ensure all second doses were rolled out within 12 weeks, saying ‘you would not want to leave it much longer than that’.
In a bid to get wider vaccine coverage more quickly, Britain’s regulators pivoted from their original plan to give people their second dose after 21 days when the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab was approved in late December.
They pushed back the shot to 12 weeks in the hope that giving partial protection to as many vulnerable people as possible would drive down hospital admissions and deaths.
But as the drive enters its ninth week there are concerns that the target may not be met amid ‘lumpy’ supply of vaccines and some of the most vulnerable may have to wait for a second dose.
It comes as Boris Johnson today praised the NHS for its ‘colossal’ effort to vaccinate 10million Brits against Covid amid calls for No10 to get a grip on the ‘lackadaisical approach’ to dishing out jabs on Sundays.
Layla Moran, the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Covid, called on the Health Secretary to ‘guarantee’ the most vulnerable will not miss out on doses. Virologist Professor Lawrence Young said he would not want to leave the second dose much longer than 12 weeks
Research found that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab was 84% effective at preventing Covid-19 with doses 12 weeks apart and it appeared to get better the further apart the doses were (shown graph top left, how the protection level changed based on the dose spacing). And it also proved that there was a high level of protection from disease for weeks and even months after even just a single dose (bottom graph, showing how the efficacy of the vaccine remained high for almost 100 days after dose one)
GOVERNMENT KNEW SOUTH AFRICAN COVID VARIANT WAS IN UK IN DECEMBER
The Government knew the troublesome South African Covid variant was spreading in England in December — but did not launch a mass testing drive to find cases until this week.
On December 22, the first two people with the variant in the UK were discovered by Public Health England and neither of them had been to South Africa but contracted the virus from someone who had.
Another case without travel links was then discovered on January 5, which PHE now admits needed ‘further investigation’. Eight more were found on January 26.
No10’s frantic door-to-door testing campaign began properly yesterday – one week after the discovery of those eight – to try to thwart the spread of the virus in at least eight areas across the country.
But critics have claimed it is too late to try to contain the variant now and that it was ‘astonishing’ that a greater effort hadn’t been made earlier.
The dates provided by Public Health England are the ones marking when the virus was sequenced, meaning the 11 people were actually infected days or possibly even weeks earlier.
By the time community testing had begun, scientists said the virus could already have spread to multiple other people in every area. Another expert added: ‘The variant genie is well and truly out of the bottle.’
Calling on the Government not to further stretch the time between doses, Professor Young from Warwick Medical School said: ‘I do worry that even though we have really good efficacy after one dose – we do need to ensure that people have the second.
‘The thing about the Oxford result is that nobody that was vaccinated after a single dose was hospitalised after the 22 days period so that is great news.
‘But I think we need to make sure that people are fully protected so I think that second dose is really important.’
He added that although the rollout was impressive ministers should be careful not to ‘take their eye off the ball’, as some feared happened over the summer which aided Covid-19’s resurgence in the winter months.
The scientific community remains divided over whether the gap between doses can be stretched, although there is now growing consensus it could be expanded beyond three weeks.
Some experts have cautioned the Covid-19 jabs have not been tested with longer gaps between doses, meaning top medics cannot be sure of their effectiveness.
But others say there is already a wealth of research suggesting the space between doses could be pushed even further.
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, even suggested it could be extended to six months, although he added it was ‘preferable’ to keep it within 12 weeks.
‘I appreciate the argument that you don’t want the time to slip further, but scientifically I’m not sure it is quite the issue some people are making it,’ he said.
‘You wouldn’t want to stretch it for more than six months but three is probably okay.
‘It is not the case that the window is suddenly slammed shut after the first dose. It closes slowly and so as long as you get in while it’s open that’s okay.’
Vaccination clinics are already starting to get set to offer second doses, with the drive entering its 12th week in the second half of February.
Dr John Williams, a GP working at a Covid-19 vaccine clinic in the East Midlands, told MailOnline their team was organising for some patients to come back eight weeks after their first dose.
But he added as they were coming from different counties, there were some differences in the gap being advised by local groups.
A second GP in the region, who asked not to be named, told MailOnline they were concerned it was not possible to get details of deliveries more than a week in advance – meaning they could face insufficient stocks for second doses.
Mr Hancock has blamed ‘lumpy supply’ for blips in Britain’s rollout, after ministers revealed plans to hand out jabs during the night were going to be scrapped.
Yet figures show a sharp drop-off in uptake on Sundays. For example last Sunday there were 46 per cent fewer jabs administered compared to the day before — dropping from almost 600,000 to 320,000.
Think-tanks have accused clinics of taking a ‘lacksidaisical approach’ to inoculations on the last day of the working week, and called on them to keep ‘firing on all cylinders at every single point’.
It comes as Britain’s coronavirus vaccination drive continues to ramp up. Pictured is Lesley Mitchell, 75, receiving his first dose of the jab at Newmarket Racecourse, Suffolk
Mixing doses has also been forbidden by the UK’s medicines regulator, meaning those who receive a Pfizer/BioNTech jab as their first dose should also get this as their second.
This will leave clinics reliant on getting the same supplies a second time round for organising second doses, in order to avoid asking patients to wait longer.
Studies on natural infections have suggested immunity against the virus could last beyond six months, meaning the same beneficial effect could also be reflected in vaccines.
The UK Biobank yesterday estimated nine in 10 Covid survivors have protection against re-infection for at least six months.
The Oxford study was a huge boost to the UK’s immunisation drive, after the EU and regulators in Germany and France insisted there was ‘insufficient data’ to back Britain’s approach.
They found the vaccine had an efficacy of 54.9 per cent when it was administered in two doses within six weeks of each other. But this rose to 82.4 per cent when the second dose was pushed back 12 weeks or more.
Boris Johnson tweeted yesterday: ‘Really encouraging data from a new study today shows the Oxford/AZ vaccine provides significant protection against the virus.’
Mr Hancock described the findings as ‘hugely encouraging’, adding: ‘It further reinforces our confidence that vaccines are capable of reducing transmission and protecting people from this awful disease.’
The strategy has helped make Britain a world-leader in vaccinations, with 10million people now injected with at least a single dose of either Pfizer’s or AstraZeneca’s jab.