Pfizer’s vaccine announcement is undoubtedly a shot in the arm for ending the coronavirus pandemic, but behind the scenes at Whitehall, ministers will be secretly praying that Oxford University will soon catch up.
The cost of rolling-out the US/German jab is likely to be at least ten times higher than our home-grown version, and the logistics of distributing a vaccine which needs to be kept in dry ice is staggering.
It is like backing the winning horse only to realise you’ve been hit with an eye-watering bill for veterinary fees and stabling.
Matt Hancock has warned the mass distribution would be a "colossal exercise" involving not just the NHS but the Armed Forces.
The Health Secretary acknowledged there was "enormous complexity" in administering the Pfizer vaccine.
Tale of the tape: Pfize/BioNTech v AstraZeneca/Oxford
“You can’t take it out of that freezer more than four times on its journey from the manufacturing plant into the arms of patients [so] that brings its complications,” he said. "The AstraZeneca vaccine is easier to deploy logistically.”
Although the Government has not yet disclosed full details of the deals with Pfizer or AstraZeneca (the company producing the Oxford vaccine) the US is being charged around £29.47 for the two doses needed for each person.
In contrast, EU countries have been offered a dose of the Oxford vaccine for just £2.23.
The price of the Pfizer drug is likely to be higher for Britain, because the US deal was brokered by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda) which helped to fund Pfizer’s vaccine.
Likewise, Britain has undoubtedly secured a discount for the Oxford vaccine, because it funded much of the research.
Vaccine orders vs Population
So if the Oxford vaccine fails to deliver quickly, Britain could be left with a far higher bill for a mass vaccination programme than it was expecting.
The fact the Government placed an order for 100 million doses from AstraZeneca compared to 40 million for Pfizer shows where its loyalties lie.
And now that it’s clear the Pfizer drug needs two jabs, the Government order has essentially been cut in half, meaning just a third of the population could be vaccinated, way too few for herd immunity.
The Oxford jab is cheaper because it relies on traditional methods of vaccine production. In this case, the spike protein of coronavirus, which helps it attach to human cells, has been inserted into a common cold virus.
Once in the body, the immune system spots the new invader and produces t-cells and antibodies that will kick into action should the real virus turn up.
In contrast, the Pfizer vaccine is a ‘messenger RNA’ vaccine which sends a piece of genetic code into cells instructing them to make the spike protein themselves. No vaccine has ever been successfully created in this way before, so it carries the expense of novelty.
And because the Pfizer drug relies on a live piece of RNA it needs to be kept at super cold temperatures to avoid the genetic code being destroyed.
Sir John Bell who is heading Oxford’s programme, said the cold storage problem meant it was unlikely that GPs would be able to carry out the inoculations.
The vaccine needs to be transported in liquid nitrogen, or stored in a container which maintains a temperature four times lower than a domestic freezer.
“The Pfizer vaccine needs a cold chain at minus 80,” said Sir John. “The idea that that’ll be done through local GPs sounds a bit unlikely to me.”
Vaccine capacity and pre-orders
To make matters worse, the two Pfizer jabs need to be given three weeks apart, a further logistical headache for the Government.
Dr Jonathan Stoye, group leader, Retrovirus-Host Interactions Laboratory, at London’s Francis Crick Institute, said: “One can foresee at least two drawbacks to the Pfizer vaccine, even assuming it works as well as we currently think.
“First, it requires two injections for full effectiveness, spaced three to four weeks apart. Second, it needs to be stored at minus 80 degrees before use. Both properties will severely complicate administering the vaccine.”
Many experts believe that Pfizer jumped the gun on November 9 (announcing interim results ahead of scientific peer-review) and think Oxford is not too far behind. The group looks to be just weeks away from releasing its own findings.
If previous announcements are anything to go by, the team will release the results on the same day as publication, meaning they can go straight to regulators for approval.
Vaccine overview numbers
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has been working closely with both Pfizer and AstraZeneca which should expedite the approvals process.
Prof Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said: “We continue to work on the vaccine and anticipate early efficacy readings in the coming months should the transmission rates remain high.
“Ideally, we need several of these to be successful for the best possible results for humanity." Sir John, who is leading Oxford’s vaccine research, has also said the team was just weeks from a result.
He told MPs at the Health Select Committee that he believed there was a "70 to 80 per cent chance" that the vulnerable would be vaccinated by Easter, so that life could begin to return to normality.
"That’s provided they don’t screw up the distribution of the vaccine,” he added.
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