UK vaccine rollout hit by 'need to retest batches'

UK vaccine rollout hit by ‘need to retest batches’: No10 sources blame ‘production issues’ for reduced supply next month that means under-50s must wait for a shot but don’t say if concerns are linked to blood-clot fears with Oxford jab

  • NHS letter has revealed a ‘significant reduction’ in vaccine supply for four-weeks
  • Vaccination centres told to close unfilled booking slots from end of this week 
  • Means some over-50s will have to wait until May to get their inoculations
  • Developments has provoked fears government could miss targets on roadmap 

The vaccine rollout was plunged into its first real crisis last night as the NHS revealed a major four-week fall in supply.

In a bombshell development, a leaked letter suggested that the NHS is expecting a ‘significant reduction’ in supply for four weeks from March 29.

The letter said local vaccination centres have been told to close unfilled bookings from the end of this month – with the ‘constraint’ expected to last throughout April.

It would mean millions of people under 50 would now have to wait until May for their first vaccine appointment, much later than many had hoped.

The news immediately triggered fears that the NHS could miss its vaccine targets, forcing ministers to delay the release from lockdown and slowdown Boris Johnson’s timetable for a return to normality.

But in a significant twist, AstraZeneca insisted last night that the UK supply chain was not experiencing disruption and there was no impact on the delivery schedule. A spokesman said: ‘Our UK domestic supply chain is not experiencing any disruption and there is no impact on our delivery schedule.’

In a bombshell development, a leaked letter suggested that the NHS is expecting a ‘significant reduction’ in supply for four weeks from March 29. Pictured: A researcher working on the AstraZeneca vaccine

 The news immediately triggered fears that the NHS could miss its vaccine targets, forcing ministers to delay the release from lockdown and slowdown Boris Johnson’s timetable for a return to normality

It would mean millions of people under 50 would now have to wait until May for their first vaccine appointment, much later than many had hoped

The shock suggestion of a shortage came as Brussels issued a string of extraordinary threats to grab ‘Europe’s fair share’ of vaccines from Britain.

Whitehall sources were adamant, however, that any disruption to the UK’s supply had nothing to do with the EU row. ‘We are not giving supplies away and AstraZeneca are not redirecting our supplies to the continent,’ the source said.

They suggested there was an issue with AstraZeneca’s production overseas, resulting in fewer jabs being delivered in April than initially planned. Last night it was also claimed there were shortages related to the late delivery of five million doses of the AstraZeneca jab being manufactured in India.

Separately, a Government source said supplies have been disrupted due to a range of ‘production issues’. The source revealed that this included the need to re-test a large batch of the vaccine, although they did not specify from which manufactuer.

And Downing Street insisted that any potential shortages would not derail Mr Johnson’s roadmap for easing the lockdown.

A senior Government source said: ‘It doesn’t stop us hitting our vaccination targets and there’s no reason it should have any impact on the roadmap.’

Meanwhile, a Department of Health source insisted that ministers still expected the vaccination of the under-50s to begin at some point next month, despite yesterday’s NHS letter appearing to rule it out. ‘We will still be able to do people in their forties in April,’ the source said.

At a Downing Street press conference last night, Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) tried to downplay fears, stating that vaccine supplies were ‘always lumpy’ and that supply schedules changing were ‘absolutely par for the course’

Officials are also expecting the US-made Moderna vaccine to come on stream from the start of next month, with enough jabs to vaccinated 2.5million people.

And the NHS insisted the shortage was nothing to do with the Vaccines Taskforce which has been coordinating the inoculation drive. A source said: ‘The Vaccines Taskforce has done a fantastic job for this country in sourcing vaccine supplies and we are all the beneficiaries of it.’

But some experts warned that the potential disruption was a serious issue and the repercussions could last for months.

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said: ‘It’s to be expected that supply… will be variable, but to delay vaccination for the under-50s by a month is more than a bump in the road. To pretend that everyone at risk has been vaccinated is misleading.

‘During the pandemic, more men in their 40s were admitted to intensive care units than men and women over 85 and the Government were clearly expecting to proceed at pace with the vaccinations, otherwise they wouldn’t need to stop appointments being made in April.

‘We don’t yet know exactly why the delay has occurred, but the ripple effects could last for months. It will undoubtedly make the meeting of the target dates for lifting restrictions more difficult than they otherwise would have been.’

Some 141 new deaths from Covid were reported yesterday and 5,758 cases. At a Downing Street press conference last night, Health Secretary Matt Hancock tried to downplay fears, stating that vaccine supplies were ‘always lumpy’ and that supply schedules changing were ‘absolutely par for the course’.

Ursula von der Leyen has told Britain to hand over doses of AstraZeneca vaccine or else risk seeing jab exports from the continent blocked, despite the fact that most of Europe has halted its use

It comes as more than a dozen countries in Europe have now stopped using AstraZeneca’s vaccine amid unproven concerns it is linked to blood clots

Panic set in amid reports of blood clots after AstraZeneca’s vaccine, but data shows the same number of clots occurred after Pfizer vaccines – which Europe continues to use – and that none of the clots are actually linked to the shots

‘I can assure readers of the Daily Mail that there is enough supply and we have the NHS across the UK ready to be able to deliver on the offer of a vaccine to all over-50s by April 15,’ he vowed.

He added: ‘We’re committed to all adults being able to get the jab by the end of July and we’re on track to deliver on that commitment.’ The supply issues are the first serious setback to hit the UKs vaccine programme, which yesterday saw the number of first doses given surpass 25million. Almost half of all UK adults have now received a vaccine, with the focus set to shift to second shots from next month.

Signed by Dr Nikita Kanani, medical director for primary care for the NHS in England, and Emily Lawson, chief commercial officer, the letter of warning urges vaccinations to be focused on the top priority groups while supplies are low.

Addressed to local health organisations, it said: ‘The Government’s Vaccines Taskforce have now notified us that there will be a significant reduction in weekly supply available from manufacturers beginning in the week commencing March 29, meaning volumes for first doses will be significantly constrained.

‘They now currently predict this will continue for a four-week period, as a result of reductions in national inbound vaccines supply.’ Staff working in vaccination centres may need to be deployed to try and increase uptake among hard-to-reach groups, it suggests, such as pop-up centres at mosques and other community settings.

Jabs should not be offered to anyone outside the top nine priority groups during that time period, unless under ‘exceptional circumstances’.

It adds: ‘Those aged 49 years or younger should not be offered vaccination unless they are eligible via a higher cohort because they are… clinically vulnerable, unpaid carer or frontline health and care workers.’ Ministers have pledged that all adults will be offered a vaccine by the end of July, with Mr Hancock defiantly vowing this will still be the case.

But the news is likely to end any hopes that restrictions could be eased ahead of schedule, given the success of the rollout so far.

After a surge in supply this week, experts had forecast it would be followed by a dip with the number of doses available likely to drop below two million a week next month.

Health officials stressed the vaccine rollout ‘relies on a biological process which doesn’t always go smoothly’ with any blip potentially destroying a batch containing a million doses. Meanwhile, rising numbers of patients needing their second dose at 12 weeks will reduce how many can be offered a first vaccine.

Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said it was right for the focus to remain on over-50s. He said: ‘It’s important we get that done properly before we move on to phase two, because phase one is where the patients are who suffer the mortality.’

The Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘As has been the case since the programme began, the number of vaccinations carried out over time will vary due to supply – but we remain on track to offer a first vaccine to over 50s by April 15 and all adults by July 31.’

Q&A

What has happened?

The NHS has written to GPs, hospitals and councils to warn of a looming fall in the supply of coronavirus vaccines.

It said the Vaccines Task Force (VTF) had warned of a ‘significant reduction’ in supplies from the week starting March 29. The VTF, which agreed vaccine deals on behalf of the Government, ‘predicted’ this would continue for four weeks and blamed ‘reductions in national inbound vaccines supply’.

The letter said ‘volumes for first doses would be significantly constrained’. But jab manufacturer AstraZeneca insisted last night the UK supply chain was not being disrupted.

What does this mean?

People would no longer be able to book a jab at a vaccination centre or pharmacy from March 29 to April 30. Anybody already booked in for their first or second dose will not be affected and those in priority groups one to nine can still book for dates before that.

The NHS will continue to focus on ensuring as many as possible in these groups, including all over-50s and the clinically vulnerable, receive the jab. GPs will run pop-up clinics in the likes of retail parks, where eligible people will be able to get the jab even if they have not booked.

But people in lower priority groups, including the over-40s who were next in line, now face a longer wait than was previously expected. The pause in new bookings will be reviewed at the end of March.

How does it affect Government targets?

The Government is confident it will be able to offer a first dose to everyone in the top nine priority groups by April 15. And it is still expecting enough supplies to be able to offer a first dose to all adults by the end of July, as previously promised.

Everyone will be able to get their second dose within six weeks of the first, as advised by the medical regulator. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the nation was ‘ahead of schedule’ on the April 15 target. No 10 insisted there would be no delay to easing lockdown.

When will over-40s get their jab?

The over-40s are next in line and it was anticipated they would be offered an appointment when a significant number of over-50s had had theirs. The over-50s became eligible this week and the pace of the rollout suggested the NHS could move on to the next cohort by the end of March or early April.

This is now likely to be delayed until May. But some over-40s could be invited for their vaccine after April 15 if supplies allow, sources suggest.

Medics have been told to focus on maximising vaccination uptake in groups 1 to 9 and offering second doses instead of expanding it to others.

What has caused the shortage?

Whitehall sources suggested AstraZeneca had informed officials that the firm would not be able to deliver as many vaccine doses of the jab it developed with Oxford University as it had planned.

This was due to a production issue in one of its factories abroad. The UK, Netherlands and Germany are among the countries making the Oxford jab. Separately, a Government source told the Mail last night that supplies had been disrupted due to a range of ‘production issues’.

The source revealed that this included the need to re-test a large batch of the vaccine, although they did not specify from which manufacturer.

The NHS will still receive enough supplies to offer people a second dose of the AstraZeneca jab when it is due and they will also receive supplies from Pfizer. A third vaccine from Moderna is also expected to arrive on time from the beginning of next month.

Mr Hancock tried to downplay the issue, saying: ‘Vaccine supply is always lumpy.’ But last week Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told the House of Commons that the NHS could expect a ‘big uplift in supply’ in the second half of March.

Is it linked to EU supply threats?

Brussels yesterday threatened to block exports of coronavirus vaccines from the EU and complained about a shortage of AstraZeneca supplies. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she wanted ‘reciprocity and proportionality’ in exports, pointing out that 10million doses of vaccine had gone from the EU to the UK.

Although Pfizer jabs were crossing the Channel to the UK, AstraZeneca vaccines are not heading the other way, she indicated. She warned the bloc would ‘reflect on whether exports to countries who have higher vaccination rates than us are still proportionate’.

But Government sources last night insisted the two issues were not connected. The UK is not volunteering any of its supplies to the EU and none of its orders are being siphoned off by AstraZeneca, sources insisted.

Mr Hancock said the supply of vaccines to the UK from EU production facilities was ‘fulfilling contractual responsibilities and we fully expect those contracts to be delivered on’.

How many jabs have been given so far?

The bombshell letter came as the Government celebrated reaching the milestone of vaccinating 25million people in the first 100 days of the programme.

The Department of Health and Social Care said 25,273,226 in the UK have received their first dose of AstraZeneca of Pfizer vaccine between December 8 and March 16. Around 1.7 million have also had their second dose. Half of the adult population of the UK is 26.3million.

Officials said the milestone brings people ‘one step closer to safely seeing our friends and family again’. Some 95 per cent of people aged 65 and over have had their first dose, as have nine in ten of those clinically extremely vulnerable.

Boris Johnson said: ‘This latest milestone is an incredible achievement – representing 25 million reasons to be confident for the future as we cautiously reopen society.’

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