by Jonathon Kitson
Wednesday, 6
January 2021
Spotted
07:00

50 million jabs by March — it’s possible, and necessary

Fatalism around the vaccine rollout isn't just wrong, it's unwarranted
by Jonathon Kitson
Boris Johnson holds a vial of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University Covid-19 candidate vaccine.

Mass vaccination quickly reduces hospitalisations and deaths, giving people the confidence to go back to their normal pre-coronavirus lives. However, in the manner of a doctor trying to persuade a patient in denial, the UK’s Chief Medical Officers have warned that “vaccine shortage is a reality that cannot be wished away”.

So, should politicians just accept this fatalistic advice that vaccine shortages are inevitable? I’d argue not. Just before New Year, the Serum Institute of India announced they have already produced 50 million doses of the Oxford vaccine under licence. India’s success undermines gloomy statements that nothing can be done to end the shortages.

If the UK targeted the same figure of 50 million doses to be ready during March, that would be enough to protect for all of the vulnerable, with doses left over for other essential workers like the teachers, police officers and the armed forces. Together with an accelerated distribution network using the measures in a recent paper I co-authored, the UK could quickly and confidently reopen our schools and businesses. We could finally treat coronavirus just like we treat seasonal flu.

So, given India has 50 million doses ready to go now, what are the barriers to the UK achieving the same by March? We know the Oxford vaccine manufacture process consists of two stages: first ‘bulk manufacture’ where the vaccine virus vector is grown in thousand-litre bioreactor tanks over weeks, then second ‘fill / finish’ where the bulk vaccine product is decanted into sterile glass vials, sealed and labelled.

However, despite 15 million doses of bulk vaccine product being ready, no finished vials of vaccine have been shipped from the UK factory so far. So all that stands in the way of getting 50 million doses during March, and all our lives getting back to normal, is fixing the ‘bottle-neck’ in the vaccine ‘fill / finish’ stage. Though some reports have stated that the supply of glass vials is a limiting factor, a podcast released by the Vaccine Taskforce in October states these media reports are incorrect.

If this is true, this means that the only issue standing between the UK and 50 million doses during March is increasing the rate of the ‘fill / finish’ process. This last part of the vaccine manufacturing process takes place at the Wockhardt factory in Wrexham. Though the Guardian reported the staff there had worked through Christmas, according to a report from a Welsh MP, the facility is only contracted to operate from Monday to Friday.

Given the massive cost of lockdown restrictions, moving this factory to 24 hour production and paying large bonuses for skilled workers to temporarily relocate to support this would yield huge economic returns. The simplest way to achieve this would be for the government to change its existing contract with Astrazeneca, offering them a large financial incentive for these first critical 50 million doses to be delivered before or during March.

Even with a huge mark-up of £100 a dose, the £5 billion cost of the first 50 million doses would be less than a quarter of the amount spent on the NHS Test & Trace System during 2020. This should be the easiest spending commitment any politician could ever make. The Prime Minister simply shouldn’t accept the answer “no” from his doctors on getting 50 million doses. India did it! So can the United Kingdom. Let’s get this pandemic done.

Jonathon Kitson is an independent researcher and forecaster. He has written on defence procurement, forecasting and vaccination strategy. He tweets @KitsonJ1.

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  • Tell me if I am being foolish here but I read elsewhere that it is estimated that up to 1M people have COVID today.

    Considering that this matches the March/April peak last year and allowing for the summer reductions and assuming an average 2 week period of illness this suggests to me that at least 4 or 5M people have recovered. Assuming that the asymptomatic sufferers and those who have not been tested need to be added this swells the number somewhat.

    As a result, how many vaccinations do we really need to see numbers reduce? I fully accept that the information required to calculate accurately those immune through infection simply does not exist, nor ever will so long as asymptomatic infections exist, but the levels of infections, hospitalisations and deaths should provide some sort of clue. Surely it should not be beyond the wit of man to estimate immunity rates by reference to falling infection and fatality rates …

  • This could have been done in October. It would have meant gambling that the vaccine would pass the due process but it could have been ready months ago. And if the vaccine failed the due process, it would have been a waste of several 100s of millions, but not billions that we are losing to the lockdown.

    The 1,000,000 official volunteers and no doubt many times more willing to help, could have been employed for distribution and vial filling.

    Pharmacists are not being used to give the vaccine despite having expertise and experience and begging the NHS to allow them to help. That’s over 11,000 capable vaccinators.

    Giving a vaccine may not be as simple as sticking a needle in someone’s arm. There are risks such as damaging a nerve or muscle and having bubbles in the syringe. But medical students and graduates of medical science degrees are surely capable of being taught on a training course run perhaps by the 11,000 vaccinators. Each experienced vaccinator could train and oversee the vaccinations of 10 vaccinators. This too could have been prepared months ago.

    At first it seemed like incompetence and lack of vision. Now it seems like control and power is the limiting factor.

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