Coronavirus vaccine could take a year to distribute

Sarah Knapton
·3-min read
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Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

A coronavirus vaccine could take a year to distribute and Covid restrictions will need to be in place until herd immunity has been achieved, experts have warned.

A report from the Royal Society's Delve group has looked at the hurdles facing the mass roll-out of a vaccine.

In a briefing ahead of publication, the group warned that even if a vaccine is ready by next spring it would take many months to vaccinate enough people to enable life to return to normal.

They estimated that even in a best case scenario, where each five-year age group could be vaccinated every 10 days, it would still take six months to get through most of the population.

Report author Professor Nilay Shah, the head of the department of chemical engineering at Imperial College London, said that even if a vaccine is available and approved it would not immediately make a difference on a national scale.

"It will take a long time to work through the different priority groups, so it is not a question of life returning to normal in March, even with all the things having a following wind and passing all those hurdles," Prof Shah said.

Samples from coronavirus vaccine trials are analysed at the Oxford Vaccine Group laboratory in the summer - John Cairns
Samples from coronavirus vaccine trials are analysed at the Oxford Vaccine Group laboratory in the summer - John Cairns

"We may be able to start the process in March, but to get through that vaccination it's many months, maybe more than a year. We need to recognise that we are trying to do something that has never been done before.

"We need to vaccinate at around 10 times the rate of the flu vaccination programme, and thousands of people will need to be retrained. That needs to be communicated clearly so that the expectations are realistic, because they do relate back to non-pharmaceutical interventions [lockdown restrictions] that we will need to make for many months ahead."

Prof Shah said the NHS would need to recruit up to 20,000 people to deliver the vaccines and may have to build field hospitals for the mass vaccination programme. 

Last week, Sir Patrick Vallance said there was a chance that a vaccine would be ready this year, but added that next year was looking more likely. Boris Johnson has also signalled that Covid restrictions will need to be in place until March (see video below).

Dozens of vaccines are in trials across the world, and Oxford University appears to be the furthest ahead. Final phase three human trials are in progress, and results may be available by next month.

The new report estimates that at least 70 per cent of the population would need to be vaccinated for herd immunity, if the vaccine is 100 per cent effective, but that may need to be higher if the jab is less potent. It is also likely that an annual vaccination programme will be needed to keep on top of the virus.

Co-author Prof Charles Bangham, the co-director of the Institute of Infection at Imperial College London, said: "Due process is important, and even when it becomes available it will take some time to manufacture the necessary number of doses and even if effective it’s unlikely we will be able to get back to normal even with the vaccine. 

"It will be a sliding scale. We will have to gradually relax some of the other interventions. Even when we have an effective vaccine, it is not likely the virus will go away – it's not going to end the infection completely. 

"It's reasonable to expect it would give immunity that would last more than one year, so it maybe the immune response dwindles within two years and it will be necessary to accent, just as we do with influenza, especially within high-risk groups."