The United Kingdom put a new weapon to work in the battle against the coronavirus on Monday. With infection and hospitalization rates skyrocketing, the push to get the Oxford University-developed vaccine into as many arms as possible couldn't be more urgent.
An 82-year-old kidney dialysis patient and the Oxford scientist who led the team behind the vaccine were among the first to get it, but with only 500,000 doses available in the coming days, Britain is facing a daunting challenge.
"I am so pleased to be getting the COVID vaccine today and really proud that it is one that was invented in Oxford," retiree Brian Pinker told reporters as he got the shot at a hospital in Oxford run by the university that created the vaccine. "The nurses, doctors and staff today have all been brilliant and I can now really look forward to celebrating my 48th wedding anniversary with my wife Shirley later this year."
Pinker was the first person in the world to get the Oxford vaccine outside of a clinical trial. Professor Andrew Pollard, who heads the Oxford Vaccine Group, also got one of the first three shots administered in the iconic English university city.
Oxford's pharmaceutical partner, AstraZeneca, has made 530,000 doses of the vaccine available for distribution this week, which will enable the U.K.'s National Health Service to expand the voluntary mass-vaccination program to hundreds of new locations across the country. From just six hospitals in England right now, the ambition is to have 1,000 locations administering the Oxford vaccine by the end of this week.
The British government announced last week that it would focus efforts on getting as many vulnerable people as possible a first dose of the Oxford vaccine or the one developed by Pfizer, which has been in use since late December. Second doses for those recipients will be put off for up to 12 weeks in a bid to provide more people with some level of protection immediately.
That tactic has caused some concern, as Pfizer hasn't tested the efficacy of its drug with such a large lag between shots. The Oxford team has said a gap of up to 12 weeks between doses will provide the maximum immunity expected from its vaccine, which trials showed to be over 70% effective at preventing COVID-19 infections.
Reuters reported on Monday that, given the limited supply of the Pfizer vaccine in Germany, officials there were considering stretching the window between doses, too. Germany hasn't yet approved the Oxford vaccine for use outside of trials. It's much cheaper to produce and easier to transport and store than the Pfizer formula.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't yet approved the Oxford vaccine for emergency use. The U.S. government has invested $1.6 billion to put about 300 million doses on order, but emergency use authorization from the FDA may not come until early April.
U.K. officials have said their goal is to get about 30 million people vaccinated by early April. As of Monday, only about 1 million have had a shot, so Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Cabinet is counting on a rapid ramping-up of the inoculation program.
And the urgency is warranted.
The euphoria brought by the rollout of the Oxford vaccine was darkened by concerns that none of the vaccines may prove as effective against a new strain of the virus discovered in South Africa.
Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, said "there's a big question mark" about the effectiveness of the existing vaccines as "the mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the protein."
He told Times Radio, however, that the Oxford vaccine could be adapted to fight the variant, and "it might take a month or weeks to get a new vaccine" against it.
More than 50,000 new coronavirus cases are being recorded daily, and hospitals in some regions are already overburdened. Prime Minister Johnson has strongly hinted that a new nationwide lockdown could be imposed in the weeks, or even days ahead.
Already, more than two thirds of Britain is under the tightest, "Tier 4" restrictions, which means all non-essential businesses are closed and people must stay at home unless they have to go out for work, food or medical reasons. Exercise outings are permitted, but in Tier 4, people can only meet one individual from another household outdoors and they still must socially distance.
On Monday, Johnson said the government would announce "tougher measures... in due course." His Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, told BBC Radio that the "old tier system" was "no longer strong enough" to rein in the virus.
Schools have become a major point of contention.
For most of a year, the U.K. government — citing data that show children are less likely to suffer severe COVID-19 infections, and little evidence that schools are major vectors for the spread of the disease — has prioritized keeping school gates open.
In many places outside of the hardest-hit London region, even in Tier 4, many elementary-age children went back to classrooms on Monday. But pressure was mounting fast from teachers' unions, local governments and Johnson's chief political rivals to revert to home learning, given the dramatic spread of the disease.
During Britain's first national lockdown from March into the autumn, all schooling was done remotely.