Sources suggested NHS staff will be first to receive the jab, despite Government guidance that care home residents and over-80s would also top the list. The rumoured change may be because the Pfizer vaccine must be stored in ultra-low temperatures, making it harder to transport to care homes and other locations. It is being assessed by experts at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for evidence of its safety and effectiveness.
A senior hospital executive said: “We’ve been told to expect the vaccine on December 7 and plan to start vaccinating our staff all that week.
“However, it’s the Pfizer vaccine we’re getting so it can’t be moved again once it gets to us. We then have to use it within five days as that’s its shelf life.”
The MHRA is also studying a jab developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, below right, and an ex-Government official warned of “tough choices” ahead if it proves less effective than others.
Early analysis showed the vaccine was 70 per cent effective overall, based on two different dosing regimens with 90 and 62 per cent efficacy.
But there are concerns the higher figure was the result of a dosing error involving only volunteers under 55, who are more likely to respond well.
Vaccines developed by Pfizer/ BioNTech and Moderna have reported efficacy of around 95 per cent. Ex-Department of Health immunisation director Professor David Salisbury told the BBC: “I think this has to be unpicked and it may not be possible to do that with the amount of patients that have been recruited so far.
“If this vaccine came through at truly 90 per cent and it is a cheaper vaccine and it requires much less rigorous cold chain [storage], than the RNA vaccines, then that would be a great result.
“But if it comes through at 62 per cent and the other vaccines that are coming through so far are 90 per cent, then you have to think very carefully, what do we do with a 100 million doses of a product that isn’t protecting as well as the alternatives?”
He added: “I think there are some tough choices.”
Asked whether regulators may decide 62 per cent efficacy is not good enough, Prof Salisbury said: “I think they will judge it on the basis of the criteria that were set and the information that was given to them. I think we will have handling issues about a lower efficacy vaccine when there’s higher efficacy ones available.”
AstraZeneca is to carry out a further world clinical trial on the 90 per cent dosing regimen.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organisation’s chief scientist, suggested more data may be needed to see if the lower dose of the Oxford vaccine was more effective.
She said it appeared only a smaller group of younger volunteers had received the half dose, followed by a full dose.
She added: “I would say the numbers are too small to come to any definitive conclusions.”
Epidemiology expert Professor Liam Smeeth has said he expects a fresh “circuit breaker” lockdown in January or February because “Christmas will place such upward pressure on transmission rates”.
But he added: “If all goes well, within a few months we are very likely to have vaccinated the older population, care home residents and people with serious underlying illnesses that place them at high risk.”
Prof Smeeth said even if the virus continued to circulate at high levels seen in October or March, hospital admissions and death rates would be “nowhere near the previous levels”.
He said: “Once the high-risk groups are vaccinated this could be the end of severe lockdown measures, school closures and other damaging measures we have been forced to take.”
Meanwhile, Downing Street said there were no plans to display the Union flag on the Oxford vaccine, following reports Number 10’s “Union unit” had asked for it to appear on packaging.