Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is as close to a miracle as medicine gets

PROFESSOR ANGUS DALGLEISH: The Oxford AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is as close to a miracle as medicine ever gets

Get ready for the game-changer. The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine for coronavirus, which was approved for use in the UK yesterday, is as close to a miracle as medicine ever gets.

It’s highly effective with just a single shot, and production can be scaled up quickly. The Government’s ambition to distribute 100 million vials – enough to vaccinate 50 million people – within a few months is feasible, although it will require an immense effort to co-ordinate.

Crucially, it’s robust and can be stored or moved around at ordinary fridge temperatures. This is more practical than the Pfizer vaccine that went into production earlier this month, but which has to be kept below -70C.

We’ve heard reports over the past two weeks that mistakes in Pfizer vaccine transportation and delivery have led to a considerable degree of wastage. These problems in what is called the ‘cold chain’ (a global network of carriers that keep vaccines at just the right temperature) are bypassed by the AZ vaccine.

‘The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine for coronavirus, which was approved for use in the UK yesterday, is as close to a miracle as medicine ever gets,’ Professor Angus Dalgleish said

That is not to devalue the importance of Pfizer’s scientific advances. They found a way to fire up the immune system with ‘messenger RNA’, the virus’s own genetic material.

Oxford AZ took a more traditional approach that produces antibodies with an injection of a harmless, weakened version of the virus itself. Both are brilliant, but as an oncologist who has been working on a cancer vaccine for the past 20 years, I am especially excited about the potential of the AZ jab.

Early indications are that the AZ vaccine is effective in lower doses than originally intended. In fact, it’s possible that a priming dose of just 10 per cent of the proposed standard injection might even work better. The reasons for this are complex, but are possibly linked to the stimulation of T cells – the immune system’s front line defences.

My colleagues and I have seen similar effects in a vaccine for melanomas and pancreatic cancers that we have been developing for the past two decades. I anticipate that the data from the nationwide rollout of the Oxford AZ treatment in 2021 will not only turn the tide on coronavirus, but will enable scientists to reap unexpected dividends from these findings for years to come.

Another crucial factor with AZ is its effectiveness after a single application. We now know that a second dose does not have to be given within a short time to bolster the first. Indeed, a delay of 12 weeks ought to be no problem: the first jab primes the immune system and, if a patient subsequently comes into contact with the virus, that exposure may well act like a second vaccination.

Professor Angus Dalgleish said: ‘The Government’s ambition to distribute 100 million vials – enough to vaccinate 50 million people – within a few months is feasible, although it will require an immense effort to co-ordinate’

For all these reasons, it is imperative that the rollout begins immediately and en masse. As soon as news broke that the vaccine had been approved, there should have been an announcement that the first jabs were already being administered. Instead, we have to wait until Monday.

There is no excuse for the delay. Lives are in danger every day, and hospitals in many parts of the country are at full capacity, trying to cope with the influx of new coronavirus cases. We should be doing everything possible to turn the tide, not waiting until the resumption of office hours next week. But there’s always the human factor. In this case, that means finding enough people to give the injections. It will take an army to administer 100 million jabs by Easter.

What’s so frustrating is that this army already exists. Many thousands of former NHS staff are champing at the bit, pleading to get involved. They rushed to volunteer through the NHS website as soon as the first call went out.

But the paperwork involved is horrendous. Even the recently retired, people who were working as GPs and nurses until a year or two ago, are expected to provide a barrage of documentation to prove they are fit to wield a needle.

It’s farcical. Something like 21 documents are required, including competency certificates, health and safety qualifications and proof of computer literacy. Even more baffling is the requirement for up-to-date ‘correctional training’ from courses on ‘racial awareness’.

Professor Angus Dalgleish said: ‘As soon as news broke that the vaccine had been approved, there should have been an announcement that the first jabs were already being administered. Instead, we have to wait until Monday’

This is not just deeply insulting. It prevents people from getting on with the job of saving lives. And it stops us from bringing back the retirees who could be available right now to give vaccines across the country and halt the spread of coronavirus.

Giving a jab correctly demands skill and knowledge, but it doesn’t require a lot of training. The medic simply needs to know how to put the needle in the right place, to the right depth, avoiding nerves and arteries. A second competent person should be on hand, to oversee the process and ensure that the proper dose is given each time.

That’s it. There should be no need for endless bundles of paperwork. As long as a volunteer can prove he or she was never struck off the medical register, everything else is a dangerous distraction.

Everyone can see what a serious emergency this is. We have to act. Bin the bureaucracy, and get this miracle vaccine to work right now.

Angus Dalgleish is a professor of oncology at a London teaching hospital.

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