The worry was that Delhi’s action, delaying half of a 10 million-dose shipment, could intensify the global scramble for vaccines.
Speaking to MPs in the Commons on Thursday, Matt Hancock said a delay in deliveries from India and the need to retest a batch of 1.7 million doses is behind an expected shortfall in coronavirus vaccine supply in April.
The Health Secretary said a partnership with the Serum Institute of India is one the UK “can be proud of”, despite a delay in deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccine from its plant.
However he said appointments made “will not be cancelled because of supply issues” and second doses would go ahead as planned.
Mr Hancock also told the Commons a batch of 1.7 million doses of vaccine had been delayed in the last week due to the need to retest its stability.
“Events like this are to be expected in a manufacturing endeavour of this complexity and this shows the rigour of our safety checks,” he said.
It came as Europe’s “third wave” Covid-19 crisis worsened, with Germany reporting the biggest increase in cases since January.
Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the Serum Institute of India, which is making the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for the UK and other countries, tweeted that his company had been “directed to prioritise the huge needs of India”.
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said it was “disappointing” and “a bit of a setback”, and would mean the doses available in April would mainly go on giving second jabs to older people.
“The impact of this shortage of supplies will happen on the group that we were hoping to start on in April, which is the people under the age of 50 without any pre-existing conditions, who are now going to have to wait until May,” he told the BBC’s Today programme. Asked if the delay would be a month, he said: “Exactly right, that’s what it looks like.”
In developments as the virus took hold in much of Europe:
- The World Health Organisation’s European director backed the Oxford jab as safe. Benefits of the vaccine far outweigh any risks, and countries across Europe should continue to use it to help save lives in the pandemic, Hans Kluge said.
- French President Emmanuel Macron was due to impose tighter restrictions on Paris to stop a surge in Covid infections.
- The number of confirmed cases in Germany jumped by 17,504 to 2,612,268, the biggest daily rise since January 22, with the reported death toll rising by 227 to 74,132.
- Poland reported 27,278 new daily coronavirus cases today, the highest number so far this year.
- Bulgaria is to close schools, restaurants and shopping malls until the end of this month as it battles a surge in infections that have stretched its hospitals, health minister Kostadin Angelov said.
- The Moderna vaccine manufacturers said they expect to begin deliveries to the UK next month.
- Scientists at Oxford University said existing vaccines may protect more than first thought against the Brazil variant of the virus.
Europe’s drug watchdog was due to report today on claims that the Oxford jab was linked to a small number of reports of bleeding, blood clots and low platelet counts in patients.
He went on: “It’s not shortage of supply from India or elsewhere. AstraZeneca is a global production and supply chains in vaccines are global.”
He added that the Government was still on target to offer a first dose to all over-fifties by mid-April and also by the end of July for all adults to have had at least one dose.
In a round of interviews, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said the Government had only learned of the problem “in the last few days”.
He repeatedly refused to confirm that the shortage was due to a delivery from India being held up, saying: “It’s not that there’s any one factory responsible for this or any one country.”
He said the Government would meet both of its key targets — to vaccinate over-fifties by mid-April, and all adults by end of July — and went on: “We have every reason to believe that supply will increase in the months of May, June and July.”
In India, Mr Poonawalla was candid about the situation his company was in. “We had to dedicate a lot of our capacity, which was not originally planned for India,” he told news service Bloomberg.
“We’re trying to balance it out as much as possible, but again for the first few months we have been directed to prioritise supplies to India and certain other countries that have a high disease burden.”
Mr Zahawi revealed 10 UK engineers had been sent to the Halix production plant in Holland to ensure as many Oxford doses were being manufactured as possible.
Responding to a question on vaccine export limitations, Dr Kluge of the WHO said he “encouraged the principle of international solidarity” and that it was “not contradictory to national responsibility”.
“But what we do encourage countries (to do) is not to wait to share vaccines across the region until they reach a threshold of 70 per cent,” he said. “The top priority is that every single one of the 53 countries starts and covers immediately all healthcare workers and the vulnerable people. That is the guiding principle.”
It came as the latest test and trace figures revealed 6.3 million lateral flow device (LFD) tests for Covid-19, or rapid tests, were conducted in England in the week to March 10 — the highest weekly total since rapid testing began, and up from 2.8 million in the previous week.
The Department of Health said the rise coincided with the return of secondary school students. LFD tests give results in 30 minutes or less.