LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s vaccine rollout is limited by a “lumpy” manufacturing process with production changes by Pfizer and a delay by AstraZeneca that could lead to brief supply disruption, Vaccine Deployment Minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Monday.
The United Kingdom, which has the world’s fifth worst official COVID-19 death toll, is racing to be among the first major countries to vaccinate its population – seen as the best way to exit the pandemic and get the economy going again.
The United Kingdom has vaccinated 3,857,266 people with a first dose and 449,736 with a second dose. On vaccines administered per 100 people, the United Kingdom is fourth in the world after Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Zahawi told LBC radio that the United Kingdom was hoping for 2 million vaccines a week from AstraZeneca but that those numbers will not be reached until mid February. Still, he said the UK was on course to hit its rollout targets.
“It’s been a bit lumpy,” Zahawi said of vaccine manufacture.
Pfizer will temporarily reduce its deliveries to Europe of its vaccine against COVID-19 while it upgrades its production capacity.
“There’s bound to be delays. Any new manufacturing process has challenges at the outset, it is lumpy, it begins to stabilise and get better and better week in, week out,” Zahawi told the BBC.
“The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is a messenger RNA chemical, difficult chemical to manufacture, very very challenging but they’re doing really well, they want to do more which is why they’re reconfiguring to add volume to the whole world,” Zahawi said.
“That could delay supply but I’m confident we can meet our target.”
Mass COVID-19 vaccines are seen as the best way to exit the pandemic which has killed more than 2 million people, wiped out trillions of dollars in economic output and upended normal life for people across the world.
The United Kingdom is vaccinating 140 people per minute against COVID-19 on average.
“It is going well, we’re vaccinating on average 140 people, that’s first jab, literally a minute. That’s the average so some areas are doing better,” Zahawi told Sky.
Britain is currently rolling out the vaccine to the most vulnerable first, starting with those who are in care homes or over 80 years of age. In areas where a majority of over 80s have been offered a vaccine, letters are going out to the over 70s and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
Zahawi said a 24-hour vaccine offering would begin to be piloted in London by the end of the month.
Essential workers such as teachers, the police and shop assistants could move to the top of the list for a vaccine once all those over 50 have been offered a shot, Zahawi said.
“Teachers, police officers, shop workers, those who through no fault of their own other than the work that they do may come into contact with the virus in much greater volume, should be top of the list,” Zahawi told Times Radio.