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18 March 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:19pm

How worried should we be about the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine supply problems?

Despite our instinctive scepticism, the government's argument is valid – vaccine delivery is inherently difficult.   

By Ailbhe Rea

There is a distinct note of panic to some news coverage on the vaccine roll-out this morning, following a leaked letter from NHS England to local trusts advising them that there will be a “significant reduction in the weekly supply” of vaccines for four weeks from 29 March. 

What caused the problem? After an evening of confusion, it is now being reported that half of an order of AstraZeneca vaccines from India has been delayed by four weeks. The leaked letter shows the internal adjustments required to take account of these changes in supply: some parts of the workforce involved in the delivery of the vaccine will be redeployed to focus on reaching people in priority groups who still haven’t had their jabs, while unfilled vaccine bookings in vaccination centres and pharmacies will be closed for April.

[See also: International coronavirus vaccine tracker: how many people have been vaccinated?]

What does this mean? The current focus is now squarely on ensuring the delivery of vaccines to everyone in priority groups 1-9: that is, the over-50s and everyone over 16 in an at-risk group, and on delivering second doses. Despite some projections and briefings that the under-50s without medical conditions would start receiving their vaccines soon, (e.g. the over-40s by Easter), that is looking highly unlikely. But the government line is still that we are on track to offer a first vaccine to over-50s by 15 April and all adults by 31 July. 

Despite our instinctive scepticism, the government argument is valid. We were going much quicker than expected in the vaccine roll-out, and a delay doesn’t necessarily mean we are off course. 

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[See also: Europe’s AstraZeneca vaccine suspension is bad science that will cost lives]

What we’re observing is, in part, a struggle within our political culture to deal with delays that aren’t anyone’s fault, and a process that is almost reliably unpredictable. The mass manufacture of vaccines is famously one of the most difficult and sensitive processes in pharmaceutical engineering. The coronavirus vaccines are being produced at scale all around the world, with manufacturers having to exactly replicate complicated conditions without the vast collection of data that would typically go into moving a process from one factory to another, in a system that would usually take years.   

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It makes sense that things won’t always work out and supply will fluctuate given these conditions. It is also a good and normal thing that the NHS has anticipated the changes needed to the delivery and attendance ends of the roll-out to match the changes in supply. The fact that supply is fluctuating (or “lumpy”, as Matt Hancock said yesterday) as we anticipated should not in and of itself be cause for concern, especially when our supply is shared across two vaccines, with a third one, the Moderna vaccine, being introduced soon.

But it is a reminder which we maybe needed that the vaccine delivery will be a “lumpy” process, and just because there is no major roadblock yet, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of further setbacks in the months ahead. 

[See also: “The pandemic has shown the best of humanity”: Dr Jim Down on a year fighting the virus]