Coronavirus UK: Britain starts to ration Pfizer’s Covid vaccine ahead of supply dip

Britain has almost stopped giving out the Pfizer Covid vaccine to new patients so it can save supplies for second doses, official data suggests.

The NHS appears to now be rationing the jab, which was used to kick off the rollout in December, and only used it for one in 10 new patients in the first week of March.

In January, when AstraZeneca‘s vaccine first got approved, Pfizer’s still accounted for three quarters of all first doses but this fell to just nine per cent in the first week of March, when only 200,000 new patients were given it.       

MailOnline understands deliveries of the Belgian-made jab will be smaller from April because of a planned reduction and there is also a risk the EU will try to block shipments of it.

Ministers must be careful with the supply they do get because they’re already over halfway through supplies planned up to June – and they owe around 10m people a second dose. 

The Department of Health said everyone will get their second doses within 12 weeks as planned. The Department and Pfizer declined to comment on the delivery schedule but insist there is no problem with supplies.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is available in much larger quantities, is now taking over as the country’s staple vaccine as medics rattle through the priority lists.

But a hiccup in supplies of that – combined with a need to reserve Pfizer stocks – means the number of people getting first doses will be ‘significantly constrained’ in April, the NHS has warned.

This means that people in their 40s will likely have to wait until at least May to get their first doses after the Government hoped they would get them sooner, but Whitehall insiders are still hopeful that some will get jabs ahead of schedule.  

Statistics from the MHRA show that while 78 per cent of all first doses were Pfizer jabs between December 8 and January 24, this split reversed between February 7 and March 7 so that it only accounted for 34 per cent. Just nine per cent of all first doses in the week to March 7 (200,000) were supplied by Pfizer

Statistics from the MHRA show that while 78 per cent of all first doses were Pfizer jabs between December 8 and January 24, this split reversed between February 7 and March 7 so that it only accounted for 34 per cent. Just nine per cent of all first doses in the week to March 7 (200,000) were supplied by Pfizer

Statistics from the MHRA show that while 78 per cent of all first doses were Pfizer jabs between December 8 and January 24, this split reversed between February 7 and March 7 so that it only accounted for 34 per cent. Just nine per cent of all first doses in the week to March 7 (200,000) were supplied by Pfizer

Figures in the MHRA’s Yellow Card reports, which record people’s reactions to the vaccines, show that the proportion of first jabs that are Pfizer’s has tumbled.

While 78 per cent of all first doses were Pfizer jabs between December 8 and January 24, this split reversed between February 7 and March 7 so that it only accounted for 34 per cent. 

The vaccine started off making up 100 per cent of all jabs in the UK, being used for 1.2million first doses between December 8 and January 4 before Oxford’s got approval.

AstraZeneca’s came into use on January 4 but by January 24, Pfizer’s jab had still accounted for 78 per cent of all first doses – 5.4m out of a total 6.9m.

Come February, when AstraZeneca was churning out 2million doses per week, the proportion of new patients who were getting Pfizer’s jab started to come down but it remained a mainstay of the rollout.

It had accounted for 60 per cent by February 7, when AstraZeneca started to gain ground.

Ministers always knew vaccine supplies would be \'lumpy\', Matt Hancock says, and vaccines are used as fast as they arrive meaning the type people get is dictated by deliveries

Ministers always knew vaccine supplies would be \'lumpy\', Matt Hancock says, and vaccines are used as fast as they arrive meaning the type people get is dictated by deliveries

Ministers always knew vaccine supplies would be ‘lumpy’, Matt Hancock says, and vaccines are used as fast as they arrive meaning the type people get is dictated by deliveries 

Weekly data available from early February shows the proportion of weekly first-dose vaccines that were Pfizer ranged between 30 and 50 per cent in February.

But it then plummeted to just nine per cent in the first week of March, when only 200,000 people out of 2.2million were given the Pfizer jab.

In that most recent week the number of second doses was about equal to the number of first doses, suggesting a pivot in the way the jab is being used.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘Vaccines will save thousands of lives and reduce hospitalisations and any vaccine approved by the MHRA is proven to be both safe, and effective.

‘Health services across the UK are working tirelessly to vaccinate those most at risk and more than 25million people have already received their first jab.

‘We remain on track to offer a first vaccine to over 50s by 15 April and all adults by 31 July.’ 

The MHRA statistics add to evidence that Britain is phasing out the Pfizer vaccine ahead of an expected drop in deliveries in April. 

MailOnline understands ministers are preparing to receive smaller batches of Pfizer’s vaccine from April and leaked files from Scotland’s delivery schedule suggest a reduced supply from the end of March was planned months ago.

This means the Pfizer doses the Government can get its hands on will have to be reserved for the 13m people who have had their first dose and been promised a second one. 

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University, told MailOnline: ‘We may be getting to the point where they basically stop giving it out as a first dose.’  

And James Lawson, of the Adam Smith Institute think-tank, said there appears to be a ‘very worrying gap’ between the number of people vaccinated already and the speed that second dose supplies are coming. 

Data suggest 13million Britons have already been given Pfizer’s jab, which uses up more than half of what ministers originally planned to receive by the start of June, which will mark six months after the UK began dishing it out.

Officials factor second doses into their delivery patterns, with supplies reserved for Britons due a top-up jab. But one-for-one stockpiles are not kept on British soil – they are managed on a ‘rolling basis’.

Experts have told MailOnline the UK’s entire supply of Pfizer’s vaccine may be required to meet the need for second doses over the next three months, with projected supply from the company dropping at the start of April.

This could dent the Government’s aim of dishing out at least one dose to all adults in the UK by the end of July and make the country more reliant on Oxford and AstraZeneca’s vaccine to get through the younger age groups. 

But the plans for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine have been hit by scandal as well this week, with a shipment due to arrive from India being suspended.

Matt Hancock yesterday admitted a delayed shipment from the Serum Institute of India was a key factor in shortages that will slow the campaign down next month, meaning millions of over-40s will have to wait until May to get their first dose. 

British ministers have denied that the blame for the delay lays at the feet of the Indian government in New Delhi. 

But the boss of the Serum Institute, Adar Poonawalla, yesterday said no further doses would be sent to Britain until the Indian Government gave the go ahead. 

He also said there was no shortage and claimed it had never made a deal to supply the full 10million doses within any given time frame.

Whitehall sources said there was a ‘constructive dialogue under way to work through issues’ with counterparts in India.  

HOW BADLY WOULD UK’S VACCINE DRIVE SUFFER IF THE EU BLOCKED VACCINE EXPORTS?

If the European Union blocked all exports of coronavirus vaccines made on its turf, Britain could remain self-sufficient and still get jabs to the entire population.

However, it could come under pressure on second dose supply.

EU president Ursula von der Leyen suggested this week that the bloc could start an export ban on vaccines – the second time that threat has been made – because the continent’s rollout is going so badly. 

WHICH VACCINES ARE MADE IN THE EU? 

The Pfizer/BioNTech jab is currently the only vaccine used in the UK but manufactured in the EU, at the company’s plant in Puurs, Belgium.

AstraZeneca’s jab is made at home in England and Wales.

Moderna’s – which will become available in about two weeks’ time at the start of April – is produced in Switzerland, which is not an EU member and so not under von der Leyen’s jurisdiction.

The Janssen vaccine, which has not yet been approved by Britain but is likely to be next, will be made in various factories around the world, including in France, Belgium, the US and Japan. Britain’s supply is likely to come from the EU but is not expected until the second half of this year in any case.

CAN WE RELY ON ASTRAZENECA? 

The good news is that the UK has ordered so many doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab – 100million – that in a worst-case scenario it could immunise the entire adult population (around 50million people) using that one alone.

And supply of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab in April and May will be around three to four times larger than of Pfizer and over 20 times as large as those from Moderna – at around three to four million available per week, according to a delivery schedule leaked by the Scottish Government in January – meaning the country will be able to rely on those for the vast majority of its vaccinations.

WHAT ABOUT PFIZER SECOND DOSES? 

The bad news is that around 13million people have already had at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and the majority of them are still waiting for a second jab, which are likely only to come from within the EU.

This means that Britain has to have another 13million doses at least, in order to make sure those people are fully protected. 

And it also hopes for another 14million so it can immunise the total 20million for whom doses were ordered. 

Pfizer and the UK Government have both refused to comment on the supply chain but deliveries are expected to be smaller in April.

The Department of Health may have to stop using Pfizer supplies for first-time vaccinations within weeks if the spectre of export issues remains, MailOnline understands, because it must begin to stockpile supplies to cope with the huge demand for second doses that will come in April, three months after the rollout exploded in January.

The delivery projections accidentally published by the Scottish Government suggest its supplies of Pfizer will tumble from 130,000 per week throughout March to just 78,000 per week in April and May.

This could equate to approximately 1.5million per week for the whole UK dropping to 950,000 per week, according to the distribution formula used by the Government. 

The UK vaccinated more than 2.5million people per week throughout most of January and February and around half of all doses used were Pfizer, meaning the demand for second doses could exceed one million per week in April and May.

If this is the case the Government will have to use all of the projected 950,000 per week suggested in the Scottish delivery schedule while also hoping it has enough left over to meet this rolling demand – leaving little to no capacity for people to receive the Pfizer jab for the first time.

Pfizer declined to comment on its supply chain but said: ‘In the UK, we are continuing to liaise closely with the Government to deliver the 40million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that we have committed to supply before the end of the year and can confirm that overall projected supply remains the same for quarter one (January to March).’

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