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how the UK pinned its hopes on the jab – and why those hopes are under threat

Creator : Andrew Lee, Reader in International Public Well being, College of Sheffield

A 12 months in the past, Margaret Keenan made historical past. On December 8 2020, she grew to become the primary particular person on this planet to obtain the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine exterior of a scientific trial. Ninety-year-old Keenan described it as the “greatest early birthday current”. It was a second of shining hope in what had been a darkish 12 months of deaths, lockdowns and disrupted lives.

Earlier than the vaccines, demise charges from COVID have been very excessive, particularly in older adults, with charges between 5% and 15% in folks over the age of 75 years. Aside from pursuing a zero-COVID elimination technique – an exceedingly troublesome job in a globalised world with such an infectious virus – the one different possibility was to manage and delay the unfold of the coronavirus till vaccines arrived.

Learn extra:
Zero COVID labored for some international locations – however excessive vaccine protection is now key

There was no assure within the early days of the pandemic that an efficient vaccine may very well be developed in time to make a distinction. Nonetheless, now we have seen not only one however a number of vaccines developed. Higher but, most of those vaccines are extremely efficient at defending in opposition to extreme illness and demise from COVID.

The UK was among the many first international locations on this planet to begin vaccinating its inhabitants, and a herculean effort was mounted to immunise the aged and susceptible adults, in addition to well being and care employees. From a standing begin, the NHS quickly ramped up vaccine deployment, aided to a big extent by the efforts of hundreds of GPs, group well being professionals and volunteers.

Within the early months, the UK out-vaccinated a lot of the remainder of the world. The tempo of the rollout was phenomenal. The best variety of new vaccinations reported in sooner or later within the UK was 844,285 (March 20 2021) – the equal of vaccinating the whole inhabitants of Liverpool.

Nonetheless, charges of immunisation have slowed, and different nations, equivalent to Spain, Japan and Canada, have overtaken the UK. One 12 months on, although, it’s nonetheless an incredible achievement. Virtually 90% of individuals aged 12 and over within the UK has had no less than one dose.

Within the first ten months of the vaccination programme, it’s estimated the UK immunisation programme saved 127,500 lives and averted greater than 24 million infections.

However the journey has not been easy.

Chart showing share of people vaccinated against COVID by country.

Our World In Information, CC BY

Vaccine scares

Not lengthy after the primary jab was administered at College Hospital in Coventry, controversies and points started to emerge. One of many earliest was issues in regards to the vaccine dosing interval.

The interval between the primary and second dose of the Pfizer vaccine was meant to be three to 4 weeks. However confronted with a quickly spreading third wave of infections pushed by the brand new alpha variant, the UK authorities determined to delay second-dose jabs to 12 weeks to maximise vaccine protection and to “shield the best variety of at-risk folks general within the shortest attainable time”. The choice created a furore because it went in opposition to the vaccine producers’ suggested schedules.

There have been issues that susceptible individuals who had solely obtained a single dose could be much less protected and that immune safety wouldn’t final as lengthy. Thankfully, it was the precise name and people fears haven’t transpired. Certainly, research recommend the longer interval improved the vaccines’ effectiveness.

There have been additionally security issues in regards to the vaccine, and two examples stand out.

First, in February 2021, it emerged that there was the danger of a uncommon blood-clotting dysfunction referred to as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) following vaccination with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. This led to many international locations limiting the usage of the vaccine to older adults the place the danger was decrease. Within the UK, folks underneath the age of 30 have been provided an alternate to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

CVST, nevertheless, stays a uncommon occasion. Regardless of 25 million first doses of the vaccine being administered, so far, solely 154 instances have been reported to the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority.

Second, there have been issues in regards to the elevated threat of myocarditis (irritation and injury to the guts muscle) notably in males aged 12 to 29 following the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Nonetheless, the precise threat of myocarditis was once more very small and the advantages of vaccination far outweighed the danger. What’s extra, the danger of myocarditis was a lot higher with COVID an infection (220 per million) than from vaccination. Within the US the place the vaccine is extra extensively utilized in youthful adults, the incidence of myocarditis after vaccination was reported to be 4 per million doses.

Nonetheless, security issues and uncertainties of the dangers and advantages of immunising kids have led the UK to undertake a way more cautious strategy to rolling out vaccines to the whole inhabitants, notably to youthful age teams the place instances of extreme COVID are uncommon. Some have argued that warning is required as a result of, in the long term, the lack of public belief in nationwide vaccination programmes might take a very long time to regain.

Nonetheless, the warning of rolling out vaccination to school-aged kids meant a possibility was missed to immunise kids over the summer time. Belatedly, the UK’s chief medical officers suggested the federal government to vaccinate kids aged 12-15 years in September. This meant most youngsters have been prone to an infection firstly of the college 12 months. For a lot of, the vaccines would come too late.

A teenager receiving a COVID vaccine.
Teenage vaccination lags behind adults within the UK.

Within the absence of enough mitigation measures, equivalent to extra mask-wearing, isolation of contacts and higher air flow in colleges, infections unfold quickly in colleges in England over the subsequent few months. By mid-November, charges of an infection have been highest in younger kids and secondary college kids.

Learn extra:
Vaccinating youngsters is useful, even when their vulnerability to COVID-19 is low

Vaccination uptake charges within the underneath 18s nonetheless lag behind the grownup inhabitants fairly significantly, with lower than half of 12- to 15-year-olds having obtained their first dose to date.

Vaccine disparities

Regardless of the enthusiastic roll out of vaccines by the NHS in early 2021, disparities within the protection and uptake of vaccines emerged. This notably affected minority ethnic teams, folks residing in disadvantaged areas and people with extreme psychological sickness or studying disabilities.

Points with the accessibility and acceptability of vaccines for these teams are attainable explanations. Within the pursuit of reaching excessive inhabitants vaccine protection, this may occasionally come at the price of bypassing underserved teams and dangers additional entrenching well being inequalities.

Vaccine hesitancy can be extra probably in these teams. There are a number of causes for vaccine hesitancy, together with vaccine security issues and misperceptions in regards to the threat of getting COVID and of changing into significantly in poor health. To this finish, the NHS, native authorities and community-based organisations have made appreciable effort to contact and promote vaccine uptake in lots of of those teams the place uptake is low. However it stays a persistent concern.

Social media, in addition to some mainstream media, have additionally had a adverse affect on vaccine uptake by means of misinformation, disinformation or the unfold of conspiracy theories. On the excessive finish, an anti-vaccination motion has emerged, some with hyperlinks to anti-lockdown and COVID-denialists views. A few of their actions have change into more and more aggressive, together with focusing on colleges, kids, mother and father and well being professionals.

Individually, to guard susceptible sufferers and care house residents, the federal government has made it obligatory for well being and social care employees to be vaccinated in England. This has been a controversial determination, not least from an moral and civil liberties perspective. Other than issues in regards to the lack of private selection within the matter, there are additionally issues that such an strategy could backfire, undermining belief within the institution, doubtlessly growing marginalisation and vaccine scepticism.

Learn extra:
Why the UK shouldn’t introduce obligatory COVID vaccination

Vaccine passports

An individual’s vaccination standing has not simply been used as a requirement for sure occupations, it has additionally been used as a qualifier for worldwide journey and entry to sporting occasions, music festivals and theatres. The so-called vaccine passport is just not a brand new concept, having parallels with the Worldwide Certificates of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, created by the World Well being Group for ailments equivalent to cholera, yellow fever, plague and typhoid.

Vaccine passports have enabled many of those occasions to happen and have made worldwide tourism attainable as soon as once more. Whereas many international locations have taken up the thought of vaccine passports, there isn’t any common vaccine passport accepted by all of them, and debates proceed as to which vaccines qualify and the variety of jabs wanted.

A vaccine passport on a mobile phone.
There is no such thing as a universally agreed commonplace.
Iain Masterton / Alamy Inventory Picture

There have additionally been questions on whether or not they really work, fears in regards to the lack of privateness and issues that they discriminate in opposition to those that can’t or received’t be vaccinated. Particularly, low- and middle-income international locations are deprived as they’ve decrease vaccine protection.

International vaccine inequity

Certainly, the world disparities in entry to vaccines is stark. Over 54% of the world’s inhabitants has been vaccinated, however solely 6% of the inhabitants in poor international locations. Attaining excessive ranges of vaccine protection in wealthy international locations would permit a level of normality to return to them – however it will be a fragile normality.

Whereas infections unfold uncontrolled elsewhere on this planet, there’s a risk that new variants of the virus will emerge, a few of which could carry genetic mutations that permit it to evade vaccine immunity. These variants might simply be imported again into wealthy international locations. This threat seems to be materialising within the type of the newest variant of concern, omicron, that emerged in late November. Initially reported in southern Africa, it has now been detected in many international locations world wide.

If the intention is to realize extra enduring safety, infections need to be tackled elsewhere, and this requires fairer distribution of vaccines. This echoes UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres’ message again in Could 2020 that, “None of us is secure till all of us are.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
‘None of us is secure till all of us are.’


The opposite worrying development that has emerged since Keenan had that first COVID jab again in December 2020, is waning vaccine safety, particularly in older adults. Fortunately, vaccine safety in opposition to extreme illness and demise seems to stay excessive. That mentioned, a small drop in vaccine safety might nonetheless result in many contaminated folks ending up in hospitals.

This led to the UK authorities recommending booster doses of the vaccine in September, initially for the aged and the clinically susceptible. Boosters will high up safety and assist to forestall infections, particularly for essentially the most susceptible.

Going into winter, there may be the added risk of different seasonal infections. Many of those infectious ailments had initially been stored at bay by COVID measures. However with the comfort of those measures because the summer time and extra inhabitants mixing, this allows the unfold of those ailments in addition to COVID.

This can place appreciable strain on overstretched well being providers coping with a backlog of well being exercise on account of COVID in addition to continued excessive ranges of COVID infections. Maximising vaccine safety in opposition to COVID to scale back the impact on well being providers is subsequently very important. Nonetheless, will probably be troublesome for the NHS to mount an identical immunisation programme to the one we witnessed in early 2021.

Omicron – a worrying improvement

Simply because the world ought to have been on the point of have a good time the primary anniversary of the COVID vaccine rollouts, omicron got here alongside to spoil the occasion.

The current emergence of this newest variant of concern is worrying. It has many mutations that make it doubtlessly extra infectious and in a position to evade immunity from vaccines and former an infection – certainly, reinfection charges seem like thrice that of the delta variant. It’s spreading quickly in South Africa and past, together with in vaccinated folks.

This new risk prompted the UK authorities to increase booster jabs to all adults. Whether or not the boosters will present sufficient safety in opposition to the brand new variant is just not sure. Thus far, the federal government has relied on vaccine safety because the “wall of defence” in opposition to COVID. In opposition to omicron, the present vaccines won’t be sufficient, and additional public well being measures may very well be wanted to purchase time till newer vaccines could be developed.

Vaccines supply the most effective safety, however nearly as good as they’re, no vaccine offers whole safety. Seeking to the long run, the specter of new variants of the virus rising has not gone away. Whether or not we’d like extra vaccine boosters will depend upon how deadly the infections are, whether or not there may be vaccine escape (that’s, the immunity from vaccines is much less efficient in opposition to an infection), and the way lengthy immunity from previous an infection or vaccination lasts.

Just like the seasonal flu vaccines, common COVID vaccines could also be wanted, and the vaccines themselves could need to be tailored to guard in opposition to the newest variant. Don’t be stunned if annual COVID vaccinations, notably for the aged and susceptible, change into a daily characteristic.

However, earlier than we get too downhearted, let’s pause for a second to have a good time this previous 12 months of COVID vaccines – 8.24 billion doses administered globally – and the numerous lives they’ve saved.


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