A glimmer of hope beckons from the UK, as data indicates the vaccines provide ‘significant protection’ against Covid-19. The British public health agency has reported that one shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine has ‘led to a 57% reduction in cases of Cold-19 in people age 80 or over’, reports The Wall Street Journal. The results from the UK tell a similar story to data from Israel. A study in Israel ‘recorded 94% fewer symptomatic Covid-19 infections among 600,000 people who received two doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine compared with an unvaccinated group the same size’, says The Wall Street Journal. Despite the promising early data, the United Kingdom is still some time away from ‘full reopening, a reminder that even with a fast-track vaccination program it can take time for life to return to normal’. – Jarryd Neves
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Covid-19 vaccinations cut hospitalizations and deaths, U.K. finds
One shot of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine reduced cases among elderly and healthcare workers, according to data from rollout
LONDON—The U.K.’s rapid vaccine rollout contributed to a substantial drop in infections, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19, according to data that add to a growing body of evidence that the shots provide significant protection against the disease.
The new information from the U.K., published Monday, is preliminary and hasn’t been reviewed by other scientists, but provides reasons for optimism that vaccines offer a route out of a pandemic that has claimed at least 2.5 million lives world-wide and sickened tens of millions.
The data suggest vaccines are most successful in preventing hospitalizations and deaths, a top concern of health authorities. While vaccines also suppress new infections, the effect isn’t as pronounced.
The information appears to vindicate the U.K.’s policy of stretching limited vaccine supplies by delaying a second shot to up to 12 weeks after the first, while also emphasizing the extra protection that comes from a second shot.
The data include an analysis of the effect of vaccinations among the elderly, a study looking at infection among vaccinated and unvaccinated healthcare workers, and a broad look at vaccinations in Scotland that covered more than five million people.
England’s public-health agency said that one shot of the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. andBioNTech SE led to a 57% reduction in cases of Covid-19 in people age 80 or over, compared with what would have been expected had they not received a shot. That figure includes mild cases. Analysis suggests the reduction in severe cases after one dose is around 75%, said Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer.
The level of protection against any form of disease rose to 88% after a second dose, the data show. The U.K. has chosen to extend the interval between doses to get first doses to more people, boosting the number of people with some degree of protection. The data show the second dose is important, said David Strain, a physician and instructor at the University of Exeter’s medical school who also treats Covid-19 patients.
A separate analysis of healthcare workers showed the Pfizer vaccine reduced Covid-19 infections by 72% three weeks after one dose, rising to 86% after a second shot.
The apparent protection offered is lower than suggested in the unusual conditions of clinical trials, an outcome scientists expected in a real-world rollout. Similarly, scientists said it isn’t a surprise that protection appears lower in the very old, a phenomenon seen with other vaccinations.
Researchers in Scotland earlier Monday published a preliminary analysis of 5.4 million health records showing similar results. They found that hospitalizations with Covid-19 were 85% lower among those receiving a single dose of Pfizer’s shot a month after injection, compared with those who didn’t get vaccinated. A single dose of the shot from AstraZenecaPLC led to a 94% reduction in hospitalizations.
The data were published on the day the U.K. government outlined a plan for England to slowly emerge from a lockdown in place since Jan. 4. It will start with reopening schools on March 8. The government aims to remove most social-distancing restrictions by June 21 at the earliest. All Britons are due to be offered vaccinations by the end of July. Around a third of the U.K. population has already received one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
The data from the vaccine rollout in the U.K. doesn’t answer the question of whether the vaccines cut transmission of the disease, an issue as governments prepare to roll back strict public-health restrictions on their economies.
Scientists also cautioned that it was too early to say how long protection conferred by the vaccine will last. Another uncertainty is whether a mutation in the coronavirus will render current vaccines ineffective.
The U.K. data paint a similar picture to preliminary real-world data from Israel. A study published Feb. 14 by Clalit, Israel’s largest healthcare provider, recorded 94% fewer symptomatic Covid-19 infections among 600,000 people who received two doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine compared with an unvaccinated group the same size. The vaccinated group was also 92% less likely to develop severe illness from the disease.
No major Western nation has approved or rolled out vaccines as fast as the U.K. The country started distributing the Pfizer vaccine in December to people over 80 and healthcare workers. Britain is on track to offer vaccines to all people 50 and older by the end of April.
Despite the largely positive findings, the U.K. is still under lockdown and several months away from fully reopening, a reminder that even with a fast-track vaccination program it can take time for life to return to normal.
Though the data show vaccine effectiveness below the 95% shown in the Pfizer trials, government scientists were upbeat about the findings. In the U.K. the group who got the shot were largely older people age 70 or above who have weaker immune systems than younger peers. The clinical trials focused largely on people 55 or under.
It is normal for the vaccines to trigger a slightly weaker immune response as they are initially rolled out among the elderly, said Jeremy Brown, who advises the government. Another reason government advisers are upbeat is that the trial results point to the vaccines being highly effective at preventing serious disease and death by Covid-19, Prof. Brown added, which eases pressure on the country’s health system.
Scientists have said that new variants of the virus, including one from South Africa that has been found in the U.K. and shown some resistance to existing vaccines, will necessitate the development of second- and third- generation shots. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he anticipates that those vulnerable to the disease will need to get an updated booster dose in the fall.
The successful rollout of the vaccine vindicates a decision by the British government to bet big and early on vaccines. In April last year, as the first wave of the pandemic peaked, the government’s chief scientific adviser decided that a specialized vaccine task force needed to be set up. The government went on to secure 400 million doses from seven different pharmaceutical companies. U.K. regulators have already approved three vaccines for use.
The data also offer support for another British bet: British officials decided to spread limited initial vaccine supplies more thinly by widening the gap between doses to up to 12 weeks from just three weeks recommended by Pfizer and four for AstraZeneca.
The decision, questioned by U.S. scientists and some British medics but recently endorsed in the case of AstraZeneca by the World Health Organization, has helped the country hit a target of offering a first dose to the top four most vulnerable groups by Feb. 15, who account for 88% of deaths from the disease, the U.K. government said.
—Joanna Sugden contributed to this article.