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‘An act of desperation’: UK’s delay of second vaccine dose comes under fire

Experts criticize British policy, which also reportedly includes directive allowing healthcare workers to mix Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca inoculations

Care home worker Pillay Jagambrun (L), 61, reacts as he receives a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Croydon University Hospital in south London on December 8, 2020. (Dan CHARITY / POOL / AFP)
Care home worker Pillay Jagambrun (L), 61, reacts as he receives a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Croydon University Hospital in south London on December 8, 2020. (Dan CHARITY / POOL / AFP)

In a shift from practices in the US, Britain plans to give people second doses of the coronavirus vaccines within 12 weeks of their first shot rather than within 21 days, to accelerate immunizations across as many people as quickly as possible. The practice has drawn some criticism from experts around the world.

“It’s an act of desperation. It also controvenes the scientific protocols,” said Israeli epidemiologist Ron Balicer on Saturday, in an interview with Channel 12, underlining that it remains unknown how effective a single dose will be in shielding elderly and high-risk people from the virus.

More than a million people in the UK have already received their first jab of the Pfizer vaccine. Earlier this week, Britain also approved a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and British pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca that is substantially cheaper and easier to use.

British authorities then outlined the new dosing regimen, which delays a person’s second vaccine shot from being done at three weeks to being given up to 12 weeks after the first shot. According to The New York Times, British health authorities were also given permission to combine the vaccines, should a second dose by one of the companies not be available.

A nurse prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Guy’s Hospital in London, UK, December 8, 2020. (Frank Augstein/AP)

“In the short term, the additional increase of vaccine efficacy from the second dose is likely to be modest. The great majority of the initial protection from clinical disease is after the first dose of vaccine,”  British medical officers said.

The UK plans to ramp up vaccinations on Monday using 530,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and has set a goal of vaccinating 2 million people a week as soon as possible.

Still, the new plan has faced criticism. The UK’s main union for doctors warned that delaying the second dose causes huge scheduling problems for thousands of partially vaccinated elderly and vulnerable people.

“It is grossly and patently unfair to tens of thousands of our most at-risk patients to now try to reschedule their appointments,” said Richard Vautrey from the British Medical Association.

Responding to the intention to mix the vaccines — a practice banned by the CDC, — John Moore, a vaccine expert at Cornell University, told The New York Times that British officials “seem to have abandoned science completely now and are just trying to guess their way out of a mess.”

The UK on Saturday hit a daily record for new coronavirus infections — 57,725 — and looked set to soon overtake Italy once again to become the worst-hit country in Europe with nearly 75,000 COVID-19 deaths. The fear is that with rising infections, the number of deaths will also grow over the coming weeks.

The UK has recorded its five highest daily new infection numbers over the past five days — all above 50,000 and double the number of only a few weeks ago.

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