The Oxford University vaccine against COVID-19 being produced by AstraZeneca is likely to get regulatory approval from the UK's independent regulator by the end of this year for a rollout to begin in early 2021, according to a UK media report.
The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which had been formally tasked by the UK government last month with the process of clearance after the jab emerged safe and effective against the novel coronavirus in human trials, is expected to authorise the vaccine by December 28 or 29 after the final data is provided on Monday, The Daily Telegraph' quoted senior government sources as indicating.
Authorisation by the MHRA will also give confidence to countries across the world. India has already manufactured more than 50 million of the AstraZeneca vaccines, the newspaper notes.
In India, the vaccine is being produced as part of a tie-up with the Serum Institute of India.
Health officials in the UK hope that the authorisation of the Oxford jab will prove a game-changer, allowing vaccines to be transported and administered far more easily compared to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine which must be stored at very cold temperatures.
The Oxford vaccine can be stored in normal refrigerators but like the Pfizer vaccine, it also requires two doses with a three-week gap between the two doses for the Pfizer jabs and a four-week gap for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca, AZD1222, vaccine has taken longer for regulators to assess because of differences in the efficacy rates found in different groups, ranging from 62 to 90 per cent. However, a study released this week suggests that leaving an adequate gap between doses is the most crucial way to boost efficacy, the newspaper reports.
Although the first batch of 4 million doses will be delivered from the Netherlands and Germany, the bulk of manufacturing is set to take place in the UK.
Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca has said a further 15 million doses of active ingredients are ready and can be filled into vials in a matter of days, the newspaper report adds.
The full order of 100 million doses, in addition to 40 million doses of the Pfizer jabs being imported from Belgium, is believed to be enough to vaccinate the whole of the UK.
The state-funded National Health Service (NHS), which is leading the UK's mass vaccination drive with the Pfizer vaccine, has drawn up plans for large scale vaccination sites, in football stadiums, racecourses and conference centres to start administering jabs from the first week of January. The programme will also be expanded to high-street pharmacies and further general practitioner (GP) practices.
The news of a second vaccine for the UK comes as the US cleared its second vaccine for emergency use against the deadly virus the Moderna vaccine and will begin rolling out thousands of doses soon alongside the Pfizer vaccine.
The UK, meanwhile, has been vaccinating the highest risk categories of the population with the first of two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for over two weeks now, even as millions more across the country entered the toughest Covid-19 lockdown measures from Saturday due to a spike in infection rates.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called an unscheduled meeting of senior ministers on Friday night to hold talks over a worrying new variant of the deadly virus, which has been spreading more rapidly across London and the south east of England.
"We're hoping very much that we will be able to avoid anything like that. But the reality is that the rates of infection have increased very much in the last few weeks," Johnson said, on being asked about the prospect of another complete nationwide lockdown in the New Year.
Earlier in the week, all four nations of the United Kingdom England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland agreed to not reverse a change in the law allowing up to three households to get together over Christmas with relaxed rules between December 23 and 27, but people are being advised to keep their Christmas bubbles as small and short as possible.
Latest analysis suggests the R number, which represents how many people each infected person passes the virus onto, has risen above the dreaded mark of one again.
On Friday, the UK recorded a further 28,507 cases, along with 489 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test, taking the country's death toll to 66,541.