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UK medical adviser cautious over vaccines bringing speedy return to normality

LONDON — The U.K.’s deputy chief medical officer on Wednesday sought to temper hopes that life may broadly return to normal by next spring, after positive early results from the first coronavirus vaccine were released.

Interim analysis of Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine showed more than 90 percent efficacy, and Professor John Bell of Oxford University told a parliamentary inquiry Tuesday he believed there was between 70 and 80 percent chance of a more normal life by Easter. That’s because he expected two or three vaccines to be rolled out before then.

Speaking during a Wednesday press briefing, hosted by No. 10, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, said: “It would be wrong of me to give you a sense that whoever told you we would be completely back to normal by Easter would be right.”

There was “no short cut to the future that you and I both aspire to,” he said.

Nonetheless, Van-Tam said he was hopeful vaccines would make an important difference in the long run. Asked if he will take the vaccine early to encourage the public, he said he would not until his risk group is recommended for it, but “if I could be at the front of the queue then I would be.”

He added that the “mum test” matters — pointing to the example of his own 78-year-old mother: “I’ve already said to her make sure when you’re called, you’re ready. Be ready to take this up.”

Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said that as new vaccines become available, “we may prioritize different vaccines for different people.” Currently the provisional priority list is chiefly age-based, with health care workers also first up.

He underlined that efforts were being made to ensure black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups receive the vaccine. He acknowledged there’s a “disproportionate representation” for BAME people with severe COVID-19, noting the underlying factors behind it are “complex and multiple … social and societal.”

He said the “vaccination program will try to mitigate health inequalities” by, for example, ensuring there are special programs “that can communicate in the best way in the community,” so that every group prioritized for the vaccine has access to it.

Journalists quizzed the panel on the ability of the National Health Service to deliver up to one million vaccinations a week, with primary care doctors raising concerns that other services would be hit.

“I think health care professionals get this and completely understand this is the most important, if not the most important vaccination program we have done for decades,” said Van-Tam. “If I can help with this, evenings and weekends, doing extra vaccinations … I will do,” the doctor added.

Van-Tam, Lim and June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA), said they had not yet seen the full data from Pfizer and BioNTech.
The MHRA is assessing coronavirus vaccine data on a rolling review. Raine said her team was in “a state of readiness” to look at the latest data.

Van-Tam said he did not expect to see the final completed trial data from Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine until next summer, with efficacy estimates likely to “change up or … down.” But noted the country will “want to deliver them well ahead of this data.”

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