TWO coronavirus vaccines could be ready by Christmas, the head of the UK's jab taskforce said today.
Kate Bingham told MPs she hopes we will see efficacy results for the Oxford vaccine and Pfizer's jab within weeks.
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If that happens there is a possibility of "deploying by year end", she added.
It comes as NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens today told journalists that the health service is "ready to fire the starting gun" on rolling out doses "as and when it's needed".
He said: "No health services knows the availability of vaccines, we just need to make sure we are ready.
"Ten out of ten we could do it and be ready."
Sir Simon said vaccines will be delivered at GP surgeries, pharmacies and mass testing centres – including at the Nightingale Hospitals.
He confirmed GPs will be on standby but said any mass vaccine programme was likely to start in the New Year – pending positive trial results.
When quizzed on the issue by the Science and Technology and Health Committees, Ms Bingham said both front runners are already being manufactured in the UK.
She estimated around four million doses of the Oxford jab and 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine could be available by the end of the year.
Ms Bingham said we have made "huge progress" and now have access to 350 million doses of six different vaccines.
The results for three more are expected in the early part of next year, Ms Bingham added.
When asked if we can expect a vaccine to wipe out Covid-19 altogether, Ms Bingham said the chances of that were "very slim".
"To get a vaccine that has an effect both reducing illness and reducing mortality, very high," she added.
Ms Bingham said she has 50 per cent confidence that by Easter or early summer next year, all vulnerable people in the country will have had a vaccine.
Optimistic of data in weeks
Earlier in the hearing Professor Andrew Pollard from Oxford University said he is "optimistic" the Covid-19 vaccine his team has been working on could get the green light next month.
He told the Science and Technology Committee today that they are at a stage where they may be ready to present their trial results in the coming weeks.
Asked whether there is an expectation that a vaccine may be available by Christmas, Prof Pollard told MPs: "I think there is a small chance of that being possible, but I just don't know."
He added: "I think it's very difficult to answer the question because first of all we have to do the analysis to find out whether they work."
The trial chief also said he is hopeful that the data on the safety and efficacy of their vaccine will be available by the end of the year.
But the timeline for the deployment of vaccines still remains unclear – as it would need to go through the regulatory processes once the results of the clinical trials have been announced, he added.
Prof Pollard said: "The data needs to be put together and presented to the regulators both here and in other countries around the world.
"The regulators then have to review all of that, and we absolutely need that to happen so there is very careful scrutiny of everything that has been done in the clinical trials to look at their integrity and the quality of the data, and to verify that the results are correct.
"And then the policy decision about who should get it and the provision and deployment, that would happen after that.
"So I think the answer is that, albeit we're getting closer to (deployment), but we are not there yet."
However, the boss of NHS England said that it's more likely to be the start of next year before the "bulk" of the vaccines are available, however, plans are underway on the "off chance" it's ready sooner.
Speaking at a separate NHS press conference today, he said: "Our expectation is that it will be the start of next year when the bulk of vaccine becomes available assuming that the Phase 3 trials produce positive results.
"We are obviously planning on the off chance that there is some vaccine available before Christmas."
He added: "In terms of who gets it and in what order, there's a group of medical specialists that look at that question when we look at the benefits of a particular jab.
"At the moment our working assumption is that the most vulnerable, the elderly, people living in care homes, health and social care staff will be front of the queue, while others who are at high risk will be in short order following them.
"Potentially then followed by a much wider group."
But he said that the NHS was "gearing up" to deliver a Covid-19 vaccine should one become available before the end of the year.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today Programme earlier this morning, Sir Simon said: "There are over 200 vaccines in development and we believe that we should hopefully get one or more of those available from the first part of next year.
"In anticipation of that we're also gearing the NHS up to be ready to make a start on administering Covid vaccines before Christmas, if they become available.
"We reached an agreement with GPs to ensure they will be doing that, and we'll be writing to GP practices this week to get them geared up to start by Christmas if the vaccine becomes available."
There are over 200 vaccines in development and we believe that we should hopefully get one or more of those available from the first part of next year
The Oxford vaccine is currently in late-stage trials to find out how effective it is in protecting against coronavirus.
Prof Pollard said that a vaccine that is at least 50 per cent effective could "halve the number of deaths or hospitalisations here in the UK" which would be "a dramatic change from where we are today".
But he added that testing vaccines for a 50 per cent efficacy is harder and may take longer to demonstrate.
Prof Pollard said: "I think we are all hoping that vaccines will be more effective than that, which means that we will have an answer sooner."
Professor Robin Shattock, who is leading Imperial College London's Covid-19 vaccine effort, told MPs that data on efficacy of their vaccine will be available in the middle of next year.
"Our timelines are slightly longer than Oxford's because we are developing a completely new technology that has never been in clinical trials before," he told the Science and Technology Committee.
"And so it has taken us longer to get to the stage of being able to move into trials, but, with the right level of support, we could deliver an efficacy signal midway through next year, with regulatory approval following closely."
Prof Pollard also said that clinical trials need to happen in the childhood population first before Covid-19 vaccines can be given to kids.
"Those trials are being planned, but at the moment we do not have any data about immune response or the safety of children," he said.
"That is something which has to be done through the normal scientific process, and I would anticipate that that will happen towards the end of this year or during the early part of next year."
Prof Pollard added that how vaccines will be deployed and whether children will have access to it will ultimately be a policy decision.
Meanwhile, Prof Shattock said that his team will be looking at doing clinical trials of their potential Covid-19 vaccine across different age groups, but added: "But I don't think that it will be immediately rolled out in young children."
He said: "Most young children actually won't suffer seriously from Covid-19.
"So, in many ways, that equation between tolerability of vaccine side effects versus the benefits are quite different in that age group where, by and large, if there was a vaccine that prevented transmission, they will be taking them to protect vulnerable populations rather than getting an immediate direct benefit themselves."
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be one of the first from big pharma to be submitted for regulatory approval, along with Pfizer and BioNTech's candidate.
Work began on the Oxford vaccine, called AZD1222, or ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, in January.
The viral vector vaccine is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus that causes infections in chimpanzees.
If Oxford's vaccine works, it would eventually allow the world to return to some measure of normality.
Asked what success looked like, he said: "I think good is having vaccines that have significant efficacy – so whether, I mean, that is 50, 60, 70, 80 percent, whatever the figure is – is an enormous achievement.
"It means from a health system point of view, there are fewer people with Covid going into hospital, that people who develop cancer can have their operations of chemotherapy – its a complete game changer and a success if we meet those efficacy end points."
But Prof Pollard, who is one of the world's top experts on immunology, said the world might not return to normal immediately.
"Unfortunately it doesn't mean we can all go back to normal immediately because it takes time to roll out vaccines, not everyone will take them," he said.
"We will still have people getting this virus because it is just too good at transmitting."
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