Kate Bingham told MPs that there was a “very high” chance that a vaccine would be effective in reducing illness and mortality, but said it was unlikely that it would be able to entirely eradicate the virus.
The chief of the UK vaccine taskforce has said she is more than 50 per cent confident that all vulnerable people will have been vaccinated against coronavirus by Easter or early summer, with GPs across the country now prepping to administer a Covid-19 jab over the Christmas period.
She said that data from the Oxford and Pfizer/BioNTech candidates would be available by the end of the year, with millions of doses from the two leading vaccines set to be rolled out across the UK as soon as regulatory approval is granted.
Ms Bingham estimated that it was likely that nationwide deployment, with a focus on the elderly and vulnerable, could begin as early as next month.
“If I put on my rose-tinted specs, I would hope that we will see positive interim data from both Oxford and from Pfizer/BioNTech in early December and if we get that then I think we have got the possibility of deploying by the year-end,” she said during Wednesday’s Science and Technology Committee meeting.
She said that she was more than 50 per cent confident that a vaccine will have been given to the population’s most vulnerable by spring of next year or early summer. “That is my view,” she said.
The UK has ordered more than 350 million doses from six different potential vaccines, but the committee heard that no vials have been filled with the Oxford vaccine yet.
Ms Bingham insisted that four million Oxford doses – along with 10 million shots from Pfizer/BioNTech – would be ready by the end of the year.
This means that the government will fall short of the 30 million doses of the vaccines it promised to deliver by the start of October.
“Trying to vaccinate millions of adults in this pandemic is again a heroic achievement,” Ms Bingham said.
Professor Andrew Pollard, chief investigator of the Oxford vaccine trials, also told the committee that there was a “small chance” that their candidate would be ready to go by late December.
He said he was “optimistic” that his team would be in a position to present the results of the large-scale trial to regulators “before the end of the year”.
“Our bit – we are getting closer to but we are not there yet,” Prof Pollard said, adding that once the data was ready it would be carefully reviewed before a political decision was made on who should receive the vaccine first.
Asked if he expected the vaccine to be deployed before Christmas, he said: “There is a small chance of that being possible but I just don’t know”.
The signs of promise come amid confirmation from the NHS that doctors and healthcare workers are being prepped to administer doses of the Oxford vaccine for the population’s most vulnerable.
An NHS spokesperson said “work is underway” to make sure staff can deliver a vaccine safely when one is ready.
GPs will be asked to be prepared to start vaccinating frontline workers – as well as over-85s and the homebound – from the start of next month if needed, according to Pulse magazine.
It’s understood that GPs are to receive “directed enhanced service” (DES) from next week which sets out how they deliver a health care process above their usual contract.
If Oxford’s vaccine is approved for use, there is rising hope that it will allow the UK and beyond to return to some degree of normality.
Asked what success looked like, Prof Pollard said: “I think good is having vaccines that have significant efficacy, so whether, I mean, that is 50, 60, 70, 80 per cent, whatever the figure is, is an enormous achievement.
“It means from a health system point of view, there are fewer people with Covid going into hospital, that people who develop cancer can have their operations of chemotherapy – it’s a complete game-changer and a success if we meet those efficacy end points.”
However, Prof Pollard warned that even once a vaccine is rolled out, “we will still have people getting this virus because it is just too good at transmitting”.