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Britain Approves AstraZeneca Vaccine, Offering Hope Amid Surge in COVID-19 Infections

By Henry Ridgwell December 30, 2020

Britain became the first country to approve the coronavirus vaccine developed jointly by Oxford University and AstraZeneca Wednesday. Scientists say the vaccine could be a game changer in the global fight against the pandemic.

Regulators say the vaccine has shown around 70% effectiveness against COVID-19, a relatively high figure compared to vaccines for many other diseases.

"This vaccine, COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca, has been approved for use in people aged 18 years and older, with two standard doses, four to 12 weeks apart," said Dr. June Raine, CEO of Britain's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

"As I've said before, and I will say again today, the safety of the public always comes first. The MHRA's approval has been reached following a thorough and scientifically rigorous review of all the evidence of safety, of quality and of effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca," Raine added, during a press conference Wednesday in London.

Earlier in December, Britain was the first of several Western nations to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is around 95% effective. However, it is more expensive at around $20 per dose and must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius.

In contrast, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine costs around $4 per dose and only needs to be stored at refrigerator temperatures.

In an interview with VOA, Dr. Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading in Britain, said those attributes make the drug particularly suitable for less well-funded health systems.

"Developing countries with a less sophisticated cold chain and with smaller budgets will be able to use this vaccine," Clarke said.

Research into the optimum dosing regimen for the AstraZeneca vaccine is ongoing. Britain plans to administer the first dose to as many people as possible, rather than focusing only on elderly and vulnerable groups. A second dose will follow up to 12 weeks later for longer-term protection.

Wei Shen Lim, chair of Britain's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, explained the decision.

"What is impressive about the vaccine studies is that after the first dose, individuals acquire a high level of protection shortly after the dose. Currently in the U.K., we know that COVID infection rates are very, very high. The immediate urgency is for rapid and high levels of vaccine uptake," he told the press conference Wednesday.

Clarke said questions remain on the British government's approach.

"There is government pressure to increase the coverage of vaccination. And that's understandable," he said. "People want it done as quickly as possible. But if you end up putting more people in [the] hospital because they're vulnerable and they didn't get the regimen of the vaccine, then that means that our hospitals are still going to be under pressure."

Matt Hancock, Britain's health secretary, said the approval was a cause for great optimism.

"I'm confident … that the NHS will be able to deliver these shots into people's arms at the speed at which it can be manufactured," he told Sky News. "And I'm also now, with this approval this morning, highly confident that we can get enough vulnerable people vaccinated by the spring, that we can now see our route out of this pandemic."

The road to recovery will be difficult. Britain is struggling with a surge of infections driven by a new variant of the coronavirus that doctors say is over 50% more infectious. There are record numbers of hospitalizations, with patients being treated in ambulances as hospital beds are running short.

"Control room staff are having to make incredibly difficult decisions to decide who gets an ambulance and in what order, quite often with huge numbers of people waiting for ambulances," said Will Broughton, a trustee at Britain's College of Paramedics. "And they have nobody left to send."

Several cases of the new mutant virus have been found in other countries. Scientists say its spread makes the global rollout of vaccines even more urgent.

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