England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the ‘risk is sufficiently small’ (Picture: Getty Images)
Britain’s plan to lengthen the gap between coronavirus jabs so more people can get their first dose could lead to another mutant strain emerging.
Downing Street has defended its plan to delay the second jab by 12 weeks, despite England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty admitting it could allow an ‘escaped mutant’ to develop.
At a Downing Street press conference this afternoon Boris Johnson and top government scientists updated the country on efforts to roll out vaccines, and grim statistics over the number of people who have coronavirus.
When asked by ITV’s Robert Peston about the increased risk of the virus evolving the longer the gap between doses, Professor Whitty said: ‘There is quite a vigorous debate about some of the unknowns and one of the things people have raised is a theoretical risk that by having this longer gap you could actually lead to a slightly increased risk of an escaped mutant.
‘That is a real worry but quite a small real worry within the system.
‘The general view was the size of the increase of the risk is sufficiently small that measured against this ability to double the number of people who actually are vaccinated, the public health arguments are really strongly for doing what we have decided to do.’
He added: ‘Clearly, if we had infinite vaccine we might have taken different approaches, but we don’t.
‘At this point in time, for the next three to four months, the number of vaccines we have available is going to constrain our ability to get through the 25 to 30 million people we must do.
‘Whilst this is such a fast-moving virus at this time, our view was very strongly, on the balance of risk, the benefits to the UK for us at this point in the epidemic were in favour of doing this.’
Insisting that the UK’s strategy had been endorsed by scientific and medical bodies, Proffessor Whitty added: ‘We’ve done this based on a number of different scientific lines of decision-making, and that is to allow us to maximise over the first 12 weeks a number of people who can be vaccinated.
The Government has defended its plans to space out doses by 12 weeks (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)
‘That should provide a high degree, not the complete protection, because everybody should have their second dose at 12 weeks, but that should provide a high degree of protection.’
Following approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in late December, the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) outlined a new dosing regimen aimed at speeding up rollout.
It will see the first dose given to as many at-risk people as possible followed by a second jab within 12 weeks, rather than providing the required two doses in as short a time as possible.
This prompted Pfizer/BioNTech to issue a warning over any ‘alternative’ schedules, saying in a statement that ‘two doses of the vaccine are required to provide the maximum protection against the disease’ and adding that there is no evidence ‘to demonstrate that protection after the first dose is sustained’ beyond three weeks.
American infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci said the optimal time for the second dose of the Pfizer jab is 21 days after the first, adding that he ‘would not be in favour’ of the UK’s plan.
But the Chief Medical Officers for England, Scotland, wales and Northern Ireland have said they are ‘confident’ the first jab will provide ‘substantial protection’.
In a letter to medics, they said: ‘We are all conscious that for every 1,000 people boosted with a second dose of Covid-19 vaccine in January (who will as a result gain marginally on protection from severe disease), 1,000 new people can’t have substantial initial protection, which is in most cases likely to raise them from 0% protected to at least 70% protected.
‘Whilst the NHS, through all of your work, has so far vaccinated over one million UK patients with a first dose, approximately 30 million UK patients and health and social care workers eligible for vaccination in phase one remain totally unprotected and many are distressed or anxious about the wait for their turn.
‘These unvaccinated people are far more likely to end up severely ill, hospitalised, or in some cases dying without vaccine.
‘Halving the number vaccinated over the next two-three months because of giving two vaccines in quick succession rather than with a delay of 12 weeks does not provide optimal public health impact.
‘We have to follow public health principles and act at speed if we are to beat this pandemic which is running rampant in our communities, and we believe the public will understand and thank us for this decisive action. We hope this has your support.’
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