Delay of Shots From India Slows Britain’s Speedy Vaccination Drive
Delay of Shots From India Slows Britain’s Speedy Vaccination Drive
LONDON — Britain’s speedy Covid-19 vaccination program has been dealt a blow by a delivery delay of millions of doses ordered from India, a setback that illustrates the fragility of global supplies and underscores fears that an exit from the pandemic could be hampered by vaccine nationalism.
News of a shortfall that will slow the British vaccine roll out came amid a bitter dispute over supplies between London and the European Union, and a veiled threat from the bloc to use “whatever tool” is necessary to make sure Europe gets its “fair share of vaccines.”
Although the death toll from Covid-19 in Britain now exceeds 125,000, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has outpaced the rest of Europe with a vaccination program that has already provided first doses to more than 25 million people.
But that giddying pace is set to slow as a result of the delay in the delivery of about 4 million doses from India, underscoring the extent to which even successful vaccination programs are at the mercy of supply chains.
That delay, and a technical issue with a separate batch of 1.7 million doses from an undisclosed supplier, has pushed back plans to start vaccinating those aged less than 50 until May, a month later than many had expected.
Given the breakneck start to its vaccination program, Britain’s government said it was confident of hitting a target of reaching the most vulnerable people and all those over 50 by mid-April, and all adults by the end of July.
Still, on Thursday, there was a marked change of tone from the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who on Wednesday had brushed aside concerns about vaccine supplies.
“In the last week, we have had a batch of 1.7 million doses delayed because of the need to retest its stability,” Mr. Hancock told lawmakers without specifying the source of the doses, “and we have a delay in the scheduled arrival from the Serum Institute of India.”
In April, Britain will concentrate on completing vaccinations of those 50 and above, and those who have medical conditions, as well as administering a second shot to 12 million people who were the first to be treated. That is a priority because the second injection needs to be done within 12 weeks of the first inoculation, Mr. Hancock said.
“The problem at the moment is that there is no spare capacity, every single factory that could possibly turn out a vaccine is working 24 hours, seven days a week to try and do that, but inevitably there are problems,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation and a scientific adviser to the British government.
What must be avoided is “this idea of export controls and nationalism,” Professor Farrar said. “Contracts need to be honored,” he added.
Holding that line looks increasing hard. Adar Poonawalla, chief executive officer of the Serum Institute of India, told the BBC that his company had been permitted to export 50 percent of the 95 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine it produces.
“Having said that, the government wanted to scale up its vaccination drive, they needed the maximum volumes they could get from us,” he said. “And that is why I had to send out a message to all our partners that were expecting more doses in these two to three months only that they would be facing a few delays.”
In a statement, the company said that “five million doses had been delivered a few weeks ago to the U.K., and we will try to supply more later, based on the current situation and requirement for the government immunization program in India.”
At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Johnson was careful not to criticize the Indian government, saying that it “hasn’t stopped any export, there is a delay,” something he attributed to “various technical reasons.”
The shortfall in supply, he added, would not require any change to Britain’s cautious plan to ease lockdown restrictions gradually over the coming months.
Closer to home, the British government is embroiled in a war of words with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the executive body of the 27-nation European Union, who said that though the bloc allows much of its vaccine production to be exported, it sees little coming in the other direction, particularly from Britain.
“It is hard to explain to our citizens why vaccines produced in the E.U. are going to other countries that are also producing vaccines, but hardly anything is coming back,” said Ms. von der Leyen, adding that Britain was “the country number one as far as exports from the E.U. is concerned,” with 10 million doses exported there in recent weeks.
Ms. von der Leyen, who is facing fierce criticism for Europe’s sluggish vaccination campaign, said that in the last six weeks, the bloc exported 41 million doses of vaccines to 33 countries. “But open roads run in both directions,” she said in what was a clear warning to Britain, asking for “reciprocity.”
To complicate the picture, 20 European nations have paused partially or completely use of the AstraZeneca vaccine — some supplies of which are produced in Britain — over safety fears.
Doubts about the AstraZeneca vaccine have proved a headache for the authorities since they emerged in Norway after a small number of those who received the vaccine experienced blood clots.
Jeremy Hunt, a former British health secretary, criticized European politicians over the suspensions. It was “incredibly dangerous to make threats to the supplies of vaccines and components, alongside casting aspersions on their safety at the very moment when vaccines are the only way the world is going to get out of our Covid straitjacket,” he said.
The European Medicines Agency, which regulates medicines in the bloc, said Thursday that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “safe and effective,” and that its benefits far outweigh its risks.
European nations will decide individually whether to resume AstraZeneca shots, and at the news conference Mr. Johnson said he expected to be given the jab on Friday.
Jonathan Ashworth, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on health issues, said in Parliament that he supported the vaccine but that worries about it must be addressed. He said he had heard that “hundreds of people failed to show for appointments” in London “and we think that is because of concerns and misinformation circulating online.”
Professor Farrar said it was important that every unusual event after a vaccination was investigated transparently, but added that he had seen “no evidence to date that would cause me to pause the vaccination program,” a step that he called “a bigger risk.”
He also warned that, despite the success of Britain’s vaccination efforts so far, the pandemic was far from over and that the country faced significant threats later this year.
“The big concern for me is the autumn and winter,” he said, with one looming question being whether children would be vaccinated to prevent a new wave of transmission in the fall.
“We cannot assume that we are through this pandemic, and I do have a major concern for the period September to February 2022,” he said. “We need to be preparing for that during the summer and we don’t need to get into the optimism bias of the summer of 2020.”
Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels and Mujib Mashal from Delhi.