Covid-19: Vaccine minister ‘confident’ of supplies amid production delays

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Supplies of vaccines are “tight” but the UK believes it will receive enough doses to meet its targets, the vaccine minister has said.

Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Breakfast manufacturers were “confident” they would deliver for the UK amid warnings of production delays.

It comes as the EU said it might tighten vaccine export controls.

Countries should avoid “vaccine nationalism” and ensure a fair global supply, Mr Zahawi said.

The minister said the vaccination programme was still on track to deliver a first dose to 15 million of the most vulnerable by mid-February and to offer all adults their first dose by autumn.

He said the UK had supplies of the Oxford vaccine manufactured domestically by AstraZeneca as well as the Pfizer one, which is made in Belgium.

The government is also planning to publish figures on the take-up of the vaccine by ethnicity from Thursday, following concerns that some black, Asian and ethnic minority communities were more hesitant to get the jab.

“I’m confident we will meet our mid-February target and continue beyond that,” Mr Zahawi told the BBC.

“Supplies are tight, they continue to be, these are new manufacturing processes,” he added. “It’s lumpy and bumpy, it gets better and stabilises and improves going forward.”

But he declined to say that he had received guarantees about the number of doses the UK would receive from Pfizer or other manufacturers and refused to confirm how many doses had already arrived.

Doubts over UK’s medium-term vaccine roll-out

The latest tension over supply of the Covid vaccine is another illustration of just how fragile this issue is.

There are huge global demands for Covid vaccine, limited raw materials and constraints on manufacturing.

The UK already has enough vaccine to jab all the highest-risk groups by mid-February, although not all of it has been packaged up or been through the final safety checks.

This explains why ministers are confident about the immediate target for the over-70s, health and care workers and the extremely clinically vulnerable.

But what is in doubt is how quickly the UK can vaccinate in the medium term.

With the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in the UK those supply routes are more guaranteed.

But the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is made in Belgium. The UK, like the rest of Europe, is affected by the problems with manufacturing that are being experienced with that vaccine.

With Europe experiencing major problems rolling out its vaccination programme – per head of population five times fewer vaccines have been delivered – this is a story that is going to rumble on for months.

The UK has placed orders for 367 million doses of vaccines from seven manufacturers, Mr Zahawi said. “As vaccines come along we will get more volume, millions more in the weeks and months to come,” he added.

The tension over vaccine supplies increased after UK-based AstraZeneca warned the EU it would have to reduce planned deliveries because of production problems. Pfizer-BioNTech has also said supplies will be temporarily lower as it works to increase capacity at its Belgian factory.

It has prompted the EU to accuse AstraZeneca of failing to meet its commitments and to warn that it might require all companies producing Covid vaccines to provide “early notification” whenever they planned to export supplies out of the EU.

Graph showing vaccine doses against UK target

“The thing to do now is not to go down the dead end of vaccine nationalism. It’s to work together to protect our people,” Mr Zahawi said.

“No one is safe until the whole world is safe.”

Meanwhile, the UK has offered to carry out genomic sequencing for other countries around the world to help identify further new variants.

Public Health England said it would give “crucial early warning” of any mutations that might cause the virus to spread faster, make people more ill or possibly reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.

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