Britain could start distributing a coronavirus vaccine by Christmas, the deputy chief medical officer has said as he and Boris Johnson hailed “a significant scientific breakthrough” – but cautioned the public of hurdles to come.
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said news that large-scale trials showing the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate to be 90% effective was “very exciting” but warned that no vaccine would come soon enough to stop significant restrictions on public life during the second wave.
“I’m hopeful … but not yet certain that we could begin to see some vaccine by Christmas,” he said. He said the progress was also significant for other vaccines in development. “Almost all of the vaccines coming also target the S protein,” he said.
“This is like getting to the end of a playoff final, it’s gone to penalties. The first player goes up, scores the goal. You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten. And that’s where we are today that first sign.”
Johnson said the vaccine was “very, very early days” but the UK would be ready to distribute it. “I have [talked] about the distant bugle of the scientific cavalry coming over the brow of the hill. I can tell you that tonight that the bugle is louder, but it’s still some way off. We absolutely cannot rely on this news as a solution.”
He said should the Pfizer vaccine pass all the vigorous safety checks, the UK had ordered 40 million doses for about a third of the population, since you need two doses each, and “that puts us towards the front of the international pack on a per capita basis”.
Van-Tam said older people would be first in line for the vaccination, with prioritisation decided by an independent committee.
“Far and away age is the biggest priority for patients who most need the vaccines and need to get those vaccines first,” he said. “You can expect a theme of increasing age being the highest priority to be a theme that stays with us as we go on this journey.”
However, Johnson warned that advice from Sage on Friday found the R number, showing reproduction, was still above one in England, though without taking into account the current national restrictions, and that deaths had doubled in 24 days.
“We are heading towards the levels of the previous peak,” he said. “Neither mass testing nor progress on vaccine, though they’re both vital arrows in our epidemiological quiver … they are no substitute for the national restrictions.”
Van-Tam said the result was “a swallow but very much not a summer” and people could expect restrictions on socialising to continue for some time.
He said he could not guarantee people would be able to hug their grandparents or kiss their dates by Easter but if vaccines were distributed they would make a “significant difference to the kind of disease levels we see in the UK at the moment”.
“Once these vaccines begin to be deployed then over a period of time they will make a significant difference to the kind of disease level we see in the UK at moment,” he said.
“Whether they reduce transmission is something we do not know yet and that is a crucial factor that will understand how far vaccines take us towards to the kind of future that you aspire to. We are working on that.”
He added: “We don’t know what this means yet for when we can get life back to normal, when we can start to lift some of the restrictions that we live under.
“Frankly, we’re in the middle of the second wave, and I don’t see the vaccine making any difference for the wave we are now in. I’m hopeful that it may prevent future waves, but this one we have to battle through to the end without vaccine.”
Johnson said the next step was ramping up mass testing, hinting this could help students return home for Christmas.