It was a “beacon of hope” in an otherwise gloomy week, said Judith Woods in The Daily Telegraph. On Monday, 82-year-old Brian Pinker became the first person in the world to have the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, at Oxford’s Churchill Hospital. After receiving it, the retired maintenance manager spoke of his relief at being able to look forward with confidence to celebrating his 48th wedding anniversary with his wife later this year.
This “momentous” event took place days after the Oxford vaccine won approval for use in the UK, the second vaccine – after the Pfizer/ BioNTech version – to have done so. Health Secretary Matt Hancock hailed the roll-out as a “pivotal moment”; the Government says its aim is to vaccinate 13 million people by mid-February. The Oxford vaccine is an “astonishing achievement”, said The Times. Now approved in India as well as the UK, it looks set to become one of the world’s most widely used jabs – not least because it’s much cheaper than alternatives and doesn’t need to be stored at ultra-low temperatures, making it easier to distribute.
The challenge now, said The Daily Telegraph, “is to produce enough of it and get it into the arms of those who need it most as swiftly as possible”. If the Government is to have any hope of fulfilling its promise that things will start to return to normal by spring, two million people will have to be vaccinated every week. That ought to be a realistic target for a country which each winter inoculates against flu on that scale, said David Rose in the Daily Mail, but there are worrying signs that the Government is reverting to type by overpromising and under-delivering. The UK had some four million doses of the Pfizer jab by the New Year – yet only one million people were actually inoculated. And, despite pledges that four million doses of the Oxford vaccine would be available by the start of 2021, ministers now admit the actual figure was just 530,000. The hold-ups – the result of a combination of red tape (see page 13) and supply issues – suggest the vaccine roll-out could yet degenerate into another “fiasco”. The unease has been compounded by the UK’s controversial decision to lengthen the time-gap between people being given their first and second doses, said Donato Paolo Mancini in the FT. The purpose of the strategy is to ensure that as many people as possible gain some level of immunity, conferred by the first dose, as quickly as possible.
But it has split scientific opinion; while there is evidence that the Oxford vaccine performs well with the proposed 12-week gap between doses, the same is not true of the Pfizer jab. Even so, said The Observer, this is the right move. Prioritising first doses over booster jabs could save thousands of lives, while “any alternative would mean that people who could have been saved might face death”. These are hard calls, said Rhys Blakely in The Times. But the successful development of vaccines, on a timetable once considered unimaginable, is nonetheless something to be celebrated. Difficult times lie ahead – but the vaccines will at least give us a “fighting chance” of seeing better days soon.