LONDON: An extra 60 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine have been secured to help support a booster Covid-19 vaccination program beginning from the autumn months later in the year, the UK government said on Wednesday.
During a Downing Street briefing where he made that announcement, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock was questioned about sending vaccines to India as it battles a massive second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and faces vaccine shortages.
"We currently have no excess doses, we are doing what we can, but we work very closely with India on vaccine production," the minister said, adding that the UK had ensured at-cost supply of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines to the Serum Institute of India, which is manufacturing some of the largest number of doses of the jabs in the world by "benefitting from British science".
"That is the biggest contribution we can make," Hancock said.
At the briefing, he laid out preparations by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for a "booster programme" based on clinical need to ensure people have the strongest possible protection against COVID-19.
The additional Pfizer/BioNTech jabs, as a forward production order, will be used alongside other approved COVID-19 vaccines for the booster programme.
"These further 60 million doses will be used, alongside others, as part of our booster programme from later this year, so we can protect the progress that we've all made," said Hancock.
"Our vaccination programme is bringing back our freedom, but the biggest risk to that progress is the risk posed by a new variant. We're working on our plans for booster shots, which are the best way to keep us safe and free while we get this disease under control across the whole world," he said.
The government said it has already hit its target of offering all those aged 50 and over, the clinically vulnerable and health and social care workers a first dose of the vaccine by April 15 and remains on track to offer a jab to all adults by the end of July.
This week those cohorts were expanded to over-42s and 42-year-old Hancock said he is booked with the National Health Service (NHS) to get his first dose on Thursday.
According to official data, health services across the UK have now administered a total of 47,540,984 million vaccines between 8 December and 27 April, including 33,959,908 million people with their first dose (64.5 per cent of all adults) and 13,581,076 million with their second (25.8 per cent of all adults).
"Our brilliant Vaccines Taskforce has secured an extra 60 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to support our booster program, which will be developed in line with the advice of our experts," said Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi.
Ben Osborn, Country Manager at Pfizer UK, added: "By more than doubling our supply commitment to the UK, we are delighted to support the ongoing rollout of the UK immunisation programme and help the government in its efforts to address the pandemic."
"Along with our partner BioNTech, we are working relentlessly to support vaccination campaigns worldwide and, based on current projections, believe we can deliver more than 2.5 billion doses of our vaccine globally by the end of 2021."
The government said it will publish further details on the booster programme in due course and the final policy will be informed by advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and the results of clinical trials studying the use of different combinations of approved Covid-19 vaccines.
The DHSC pointed to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Oxford University which shows that Covid-19 infections fell significantly by 65 per cent after the first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, rising further after the second dose.
Data from Public Health England's real-world study shows the vaccines are already having a significant impact in the UK, reducing hospitalisations and deaths, saving more than 10,000 lives between December and March.