(CN) — Authorizing its second Covid-19 vaccine, Britain became the first country to give the green light to an affordable, easy-to-store vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca Wednesday.
The AstraZeneca shot is heralded because it can be stored in refrigerators, rather than ultra-cold freezers, as is required for the U.K.’s other approved vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech, and because it can be made cheaply. The Moderna vaccine, which has been authorized for emergency use in the U.S., has not been approved in Britain.
U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC that with the AstraZeneca vaccine’s approval, the U.K. now has 100 million coronavirus shots ordered overall — enough to vaccinate the “whole population” of the country.
The U.K. has a population of around 65 million. This number would ensure two doses would be able to get to 50 million, more than 75% of its citizens. The threshold for herd immunity for Covid-19 is estimated to be between 70% and 90%.
Hancock referred to the approval as “the single biggest stride that we’ve been able to take since this pandemic began.” The AstraZeneca vaccine will begin to be administered on Monday, he said.
The AstraZeneca vaccine, like its other approved counterpart, also requires two shots for maximum effectiveness, although its effectiveness at preventing Covid-19 after the first shot is estimated around 70%. There remains a question of whether those in 55-plus age groups will develop infections at a lower rate than unvaccinated persons as just 12% of study participants were over 55 years old in research trials.
Following the discovery of a more rapidly contagious Covid-19 variant strain in the country that has caused other countries to halt flights from the U.K., along with what is expected to be a post-holiday surge of cases, Britain also announced Wednesday that it will stretch out the time between first and second doses of all vaccines so that more people are protected at some level. All should be able to get a second dose within 3 months of getting the first, officials said.
“The immediate urgency is for rapid and high levels of vaccine uptake,” Wei Shen Lim, the chair of the U.K.’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said Wednesday. “This will allow the greatest number of eligible people to receive vaccine in the shortest time possible, and that will protect the greatest number of lives.”
BioNTech’s CEO said last week he expects the company’s vaccine to be effective against the new strain of Covid-19 as well.
According to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus resource tracker, the U.K. has seen more than 2,440,166 cases of Covid-19 and 72,656 Covid-19 deaths as of Wednesday. Hundreds of thousands of U.K. residents have already received at least one shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was approved early this month.
When the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency cleared the AstraZeneca vaccine for emergency use, it did not compare it against Pfizer’s, but it did revise its guidance on the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for pregnant and breastfeeding women, saying both should consult with a physician before receipt. Previously, the shot had not been recommended for pregnant women.
In response to the new single-dose priority policy, Pfizer said that two doses are needed to protect against the disease and that the “alternative” dosing regimens should be tracked by health officials. The pharmaceutical manufacturer said that it does not have data to support one dose will last longer than 21 days. Pfizer-BioNtech requires that the two doses of its vaccine be administered over two visits weeks apart. This vaccine is said to be more than 95% effective a week after the second dose.
Oxford University professor Andrew Pollard, who helped lead the vaccine’s development, said in a statement Wednesday that AstraZeneca’s approval was a landmark moment.
“Though this is just the beginning, we will start to get ahead of the pandemic, protect health and economies when the vulnerable are vaccinated everywhere, as many as possible as soon possible,” he said.
The director of Oxford’s vaccine research institute, professor Adrian Hill noted that its vaccine made with AstraZeneca will be more affordable, at $2.50 per dose, and more easily transportable than Pfizer’s vaccine for those in developing countries.
“A key element of Oxford’s partnership with AstraZeneca is the joint commitment to provide the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis for the duration of the pandemic across the world, and in perpetuity to low- and middle-income countries,” Hill said.
AstraZeneca plans to make more than 3 billion doses by the end of 2021. The company’s CEO Pascal Soriot said in a statement Wednesday that it hopes to supply “millions of doses” to the U.K. government by the end of March.