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“She wanted my contacts. She knew I knew everyone in the industry,” Bates, a lobbyist who heads the UK BioIndustry Association, told CNN. Kate Bingham told me, ‘We have never made an effective vaccine against human coronavirus. It is far. “”

At that time, the UK government had one of the highest national death rates in the world, after dragging its feet to impose lockdown restrictions, showing reluctance to enforce the rules and after futile attempts to follow. and trace the spread of the virus. Its border was also still wide open, and the government was throwing money at a rotating team of private sector consultants to secure basic personal protective equipment (PPE) – an effort that seemed more effective in generating controversy than in securing basic personal protective equipment (PPE). secure supplies.

But the government’s foresight in supporting coronavirus vaccines has become one of the pandemic’s most surprising success stories.

Despite its widely criticized pandemic response, which has led to more than 117,000 deaths and over 4 million cases of coronavirus to date, the UK has now administered 15 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine – a target set by the government to reach everyone in its top four. priority groups by February 15. Groups include all people over 70, front-line health and social workers, people living in nursing homes, and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
This total is higher than that of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland and Belgium combined. The UK has the third highest vaccination rate in the world behind Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Nadhim Zahawi, British Minister for the Deployment of the Covid-19 Vaccine, confirmed that the target had been reached a day earlier in a message posted on Twitter on Sunday. “We will not rest until we have offered the vaccine to the whole of Phase 1,” Zahawi wrote, referring to priority groups defined by the government.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson celebrated the moment, calling it an “important milestone” and “extraordinary achievement”.

“In England I can now tell you that we have now offered jabs to everyone in the first four priority groups, the people most likely to be seriously ill from the coronavirus, reaching the first goal we set for ourselves” , he wrote on Twitter.

The UK government is also planning to give a first dose to other risk groups and adults over 50 by the end of April.

Across the country, football stadiums, horse races, cathedrals and mosques are used as sites for mass vaccination. And through the National Health Service (NHS), the government can reach almost anyone in the country to schedule an immunization appointment.

In the town of Basingstoke in southern England, a functioning fire station is being used for vaccinations. To accommodate the program, the engines were moved outside, emergency deployment routes were revised, and a small army of soldiers, firefighters, volunteers and nurses moved in.

“It looks like a war effort,” says Mark Maffey, the NHS architect who led the transformation of the fire station and three other vaccination sites in the region.

UK Covid vaccine rollout is much needed victory after failed pandemic response

Big bets on longshot vaccines

The centralized NHS is key to securing gunfire, but it was the first round of big bets on then unproven vaccines that really propelled the UK ahead of the global pack.

Keen not to repeat his PPE buying mistakes and unwilling to rely solely on officials who lacked expertise in vaccine procurement, UK chief science adviser Patrick Vallance pushed Downing Street to bring in outside experts to form the vaccine working group.

On paper, the unusual combination of officials and former industry insiders appears to be a recipe for conflict of interest, but they were accountable to government ministers and auditors, says Bates, who left the committee. last month.

The task force quickly backed a vaccine under development by a group of scientists at the University of Oxford who were working on a vaccine against Middle East respiratory syndrome – a disease caused by another type of coronavirus – before to change direction. at Covid-19. It wasn’t long before a vaccine was developed, but the challenge would be to manufacture it on an industrial scale, which is where AstraZeneca came in.
UK Covid vaccine rollout is much needed victory after failed pandemic response

The Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company was chosen because of its unwavering commitment to prioritizing the UK market, which both sides said involved supplying all UK-made doses to the UK government and exporting them. doses only after the country had been supplied. In return, the British government agreed to invest heavily in the manufacture of the vaccine.

“I was not going to settle for a contract that would allow the Oxford vaccine to be delivered to others around the world before us,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told UK radio station LBC earlier this month.

Of the more than 100 vaccines in development around the world at the time, the task force selected around 20 based on how quickly they could be tested and made available. In the end, they picked seven based on manufacturers’ ability to increase production for the UK. These seven included the three that have been approved to date by Pfizer / BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford / AstraZeneca. Two more from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson have also shown promise in Phase 3 trials published last month.

Bates says bureaucratic hurdles have been minimized. “I think having a small group makes decisions easier and faster,” he said, adding that Bingham “having the hotline with the Prime Minister also made sure the chains of command were very short. at key moments when decisions were made. ”

Go it alone

The speed at which the UK has been able to approve and administer vaccines is in part due to the country’s decision to go it alone, rather than joining European Union procurement efforts . When the EU offered the UK the chance to join forces, it insisted it drop all ongoing contract talks.

“It didn’t seem like the right thing to do, so the UK didn’t do it,” Bates said, saying the decision “probably gave us at least three months of work ahead of time, this which turns out to be invaluable. ”

The UK’s decision not to join Europe’s procurement strategy has been controversial. Last March, Martin McKee, a European health professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, predicted in the Guardian newspaper that Britain would pay more and get fewer vaccines going it alone.

“The timing of the pandemic … could be an opportunity to reflect on whether an isolationist ideology is really such a good idea,” McKee wrote.

His perspective has since changed. “I fully admit that I was wrong on this one,” McKee told CNN. “I give Kate Bingham all the credit… she did really well.”

But Britain’s departure left Europe frustrated and left behind – sparking a diplomatic row across the Channel. At one point in January, EU leaders even threatened to restrict exports of vaccines produced in Europe to even the score.
UK Covid vaccine rollout is much needed victory after failed pandemic response
Last month, AstraZeneca clarified that it had never contractually promised Europe that it would receive doses at the same rate as the UK. “Basically we said we were going to do our best,” company CEO Pascal Soriot told Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

McKee believes the UK’s success is also due to the well-organized and centralized NHS system, which gives the country an edge that many other countries lack. The Basingstoke Fire Station is able to inject more than 1,000 doses of vaccine per day. Across the country, daily injections exceeded 600,000 at one point. NHS staff, emergency services and regular volunteers are all starting to see their efforts pay off.

Firefighters now trained to fire Basingstoke are working under Steve Apter, the Hampshire County Deputy Fire Chief. Last summer, Apter’s mother was hospitalized with symptoms of Covid-19 and later died of pneumonia. Her test eventually came back negative, but her symptoms forced her to be isolated for days, unable to have her family at her bedside.

UK Covid vaccine rollout is much needed victory after failed pandemic response

“The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming,” he recalls. He is proud of the contribution of the firefighters to the vaccination effort and cannot help but feel a sense of national pride.

“I have never known such an open sense of a shared purpose as the one we see now.”

An earlier version of this story stated that Steve Bates was not getting paid for his role on the task force. It has been updated to clarify that the UK government did compensate Bates’ organization for the time he spent on the task force.

CNN’s Matt Brealey, Darren Bull and Mark Baron contributed to this report.

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