Coronavirus: UK only buying enough vaccines to protect the most vulnerable

·3-min read

The UK is only buying a vaccine to protect the people most vulnerable to COVID-19 - effectively ending any hope of herd immunity in the foreseeable future, Sky News understands.

Every vaccine bought for the UK stockpile since the summer has been on the assumption that just 30 million people - less than half the population - will get it.

With such low coverage, the virus would continue to spread and some form of social distancing would still be needed.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) issued advice in June that said people over 50, those with underlying health issues, and health and care workers should be given priority.

The young and healthy should only be given the jab once further analysis has been done on the risks and benefits, the committee concluded.

Since then, the UK Vaccines Taskforce has done deals with five manufacturers - each for either 30 million or 60 million doses, depending on whether one or two shots are needed for full protection.

Only the Oxford vaccine - which was bought in advance of the JCVI's recommendations - is available in greater numbers.

Professor Adam Finn, a paediatric immunologist in Bristol and an adviser to the World Health Organisation, said the decision is likely to have been driven by limitations of the first wave of vaccines, which may only take the edge off symptoms.

He told Sky News: "If all you know about a vaccine is it prevents people from getting sick, then the only logical thing you can do is try to stop people getting sick - and those who do are the elderly.

"Up to the age of 40, although there is a small chance you will get seriously ill and die, it is very small."

He said if there was evidence at a later stage that a vaccine stops transmission of the virus it may then be worth rolling it out to young people.

By then millions of high priority people would have been immunised, giving medical authorities greater confidence in the vaccine's safety.

"The UK position is let's do what we know we can do to start with and find out more as we go along," said Dr Finn.

But at that stage the UK would have to take its chances in the queue for more doses - when manufacturing capacity is already overwhelmed by the number of orders.

Analysis by Sky News shows some of the UK's economic competitors have already bought enough vaccine to protect their populations.

Australia, Japan and Germany have ordered enough for herd immunity. And the US hopes to have doses for every citizen by the middle of next year.

Canada and Belgium have followed the same path as the UK, targeting vaccines at priority groups.

Dr Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra, a lecturer in global health ethics at the University of Edinburgh, said governments need to be transparent about their objective.

"It's unlikely that a safe vaccine will be available in enough quantity for it to be distributed to the majority of the population in order to achieve herd immunity instantly or at least very quickly," she said.

"So we have to make some difficult ethical decisions around allocation.

"We have to make trade-offs about values and interests, and as long as we're being open and transparent and accountable about those decisions, and as long as we're able to review those decisions as it develops I think that's the best we can do."

The UK has 340 million doses in its vaccine stockpile. But Sir Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientist, has warned 90% of vaccines fail during development and never reach the clinic.

Kate Bingham, the head of the Vaccine's Taskforce, told Sky News earlier this month that the first vaccines are likely to be only partially effective.

She said vaccines with potentially better and more durable immune responses are currently in early development and could be added to the stockpile in the future.