WHO Recommends The Oxford/AstraZeneca Vaccine For People Over 65

Published February 11th, 2021 - 07:17 GMT
A health worker prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccine centre set up at City Hall in Hull, northeast England on February 10, 2021. Paul ELLIS / AFP
A health worker prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccine centre set up at City Hall in Hull, northeast England on February 10, 2021. Paul ELLIS / AFP
But the WHO scientists shot down the paper.

The World Health Organization has officially recommended the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for people over the age of 65 and said it should be used 'without an upper age limit'. 

WHO experts have reviewed all the evidence from studies of the jab and said there is 'no reason' it shouldn't be used against the South African variant because it should still prevent severe illness and death even if it's less effective.

There are concerns the vaccine won't work against that mutated strain of the virus after a study in South Africa found it offered only 'minimal protection' against mild disease in young people – but WHO scientists said it was 'inconclusive'.  

And they backed up the UK's strategy of spacing the first and second dose by three months, saying between eight and 12 weeks was ideal for maximum protection.   

The over-65s ruling is a hit back against European countries that criticised the jab and refused to use it among their older populations, claiming there was not enough proof it worked.

Countries including GermanyFrance, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Poland, Hungary and Italy decided not to roll out the vaccine to older people.

News reports from Germany in January sensationally claimed the vaccine was only eight per cent effective among over-65s, but it later emerged that ministers had put an inaccurate percentage on clinical data that was so vague it was meaningless.

However today, Dr Alejandro Cravioto, a director at the WHO, said in a briefing that the jab could be given 'without an upper age limit'. And Dr Katherine O'Brien added: 'Even with a hypothetical drop in efficacy, it’s still the right thing to do to vaccinate.' 

Dr Cravioto added there was 'no reason' that places with the South African variant of the virus should not use the vaccine to keep down hospital admissions and deaths with the virus. No10's top scientific advisers insist it should still prevent vaccinated people from being hospitalised or dying — which is their main purpose.

Boris Johnson welcomed the WHO’s support for the UK’s strategy of delivering the Oxford vaccine in over-65s, saying it was 'good to see' in tonight's Downing Street press conference.

It comes after it was revealed today that Pfizer and Oxford University's Covid jabs both cut the risk of falling ill with the disease by 65 per cent after just one dose.

In the clearest proof yet that the NHS inoculation drive is working, Government data shows the Pfizer jab kicks in within two weeks and is just as effective at blocking symptoms in the elderly as it is in the young. The Oxford jab is similarly robust.

The Prime Minister today said Britain has made 'great strides' in its vaccination programme, as he urged all unvaccinated over-70s to come forward so the UK can hit its target to reach 15million people by Monday.

The WHO said that two-doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca was, overall, 63 per cent effective at preventing Covid symptoms.

The efficacy is expected to be higher at preventing severe illness and close to 100 per cent for death, but it is not known how well it will stop the virus spreading.

Those parts of the WHO's report were expected – the big move was the confirmation that it should be used for people over the age of 65.

Britain is using the jab as one of its key components of the rollout in elderly people, which has so far immunised more than 13million people.

It is being given to people of all ages but some European countries were sceptical about this, despite the thumbs-up from the European Medicines Agency. 

France's President Macron ruffled feathers by calling it 'quasi-ineffective' for elderly people.

But the WHO's Dr Joachim Hombach said today that 'the immune response in people over 65 is almost the same as in younger people, and this makes us confident that this vaccine is protective.'

Dr Katherine O'Brien, the WHO's director for vaccines, said that even if the vaccine was less effective than billed, it should still be used.

She told a news conference: 'Even with a hypothetical drop in efficacy, it’s still the right thing to do to vaccinate adults with a low efficacy vaccine because of the high risk of severe disease in that age group.

'Even if the efficacy was substantially lower than what was measured, it’s still the right thing to do.'  

In its report the WHO said: 'Because a relatively small number of participants aged 65 years or over were recruited into the clinical trials, there were few cases of Covid in either the vaccine or the control group in this age category, and thus the confidence interval on the efficacy estimate is very wide. 

'More precise efficacy estimates for this age group are expected soon, from both ongoing trials and vaccine effectiveness studies in countries that are using this vaccine.

'Immune responses induced by the vaccine in older persons are well documented and similar to those in other age groups. 

'This suggests it is likely that the vaccine will be found to be efficacious in older persons. The trial data indicate that the vaccine is safe for this age group. 

'The risk of severe disease and death due to Covid-19 increases steeply with age. Older adults are identified as a priority group in the WHO SAGE Prioritization Roadmap. 

'This prioritization is supported by vaccine impact modelling work, even for vaccine efficacy that is substantially below that observed among younger adults administered AZD1222 [Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine]. 

'Taking the totality of available evidence into account, WHO recommends the vaccine for use in persons aged 65 years and older.'

The WHO's report comes after a senior scientist in the UK said last week that more evidence coming from the Oxford trials that the jab will be effective for older people.

Sir Munir Pirmohamed, boss of the Commission on Human Medicines, said on Friday that regulators had received extra information from Oxford University and AstraZeneca scientists to prove their jab was safe and effective for over-65s.

The data, which is not yet publicly available, is coming now from same clinical trials in the UK and around the world that got it approved in the first place. 

The WHO also urged countries to continue to use the vaccine even if they have the South African variant of the virus circulating. 

The South African variant has developed a mutation that allows it to slip past the immune systems of some people who have developed protection based on an older version of the virus, either by catching it or by getting vaccinated. 

The research, first reported by the Financial Times at the weekend and not yet published by the scientists who did it, looked at whether the vaccine could prevent mild and moderate Covid-19 in young, healthy people.

It found that the vaccine didn't really work in this way, with efficacy dropping to around 10-20 per cent.

But the WHO scientists shot down the paper.

Dr Katherine O'Brien called it 'small' and 'inconclusive', saying all it produced was 'no evidence to point in one direction or another on severe disease', which is what the jab was designed to prevent.

Speaking about the South African variant and the Oxford jab, Dr Cravioto said in the briefing: 'The preliminary analysis has shown that there is a marked reduction in the vaccine effectiveness against mild or moderate disease, and a reduction in the neutralising antibody levels. 

'The study was designed to assess the efficacy against disease of any severity but the small sample size did not allow the assessment of vaccine efficacy against severe infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

'There is indirect evidence that there is protection against severe disease using the AstraZeneca vaccine.

'Considering all these factors, we have made the recommendation that even if there is a reduction in the possibility of this vaccine having a full impact in its protection capacity, especially against severe disease, there is no reason not to recommend its use even in countries that have the circulation of the variant.

'I will repeat that – even if you have the circulation of the variant in a country, there is no reason that we see, for now, [not to] use the AstraZeneca vaccine as indicated to be able to reduce the levels of severe disease in that population.' 

Pfizer and Oxford University's Covid vaccines both cut the risk of falling ill with the disease by 65 per cent after just one dose, in a ray of hope for Britain's lockdown-easing plans.

In the most concrete proof yet that the NHS inoculation drive is working, unpublished Government data shows the Pfizer/BioNTech jab kicks in within two weeks and is just as effective at blocking symptoms in the elderly as it is in the young. The Oxford/AstraZeneca jab is similarly robust. 

The first Pfizer dose reportedly cuts the risk of getting symptoms by 64 per cent in over-80s and by 65 per cent in younger adults, the first data from the UK immunisation programme has found. Protection soars to between 79 and 84 per cent after the second dose for all ages. Similar results have been seen in Israel.

Number 10 sources told The Sun hospitalisation rates among the 12.6million Britons who've been vaccinated have also reportedly starting falling to a 'fraction of previous levels'.

Public Health England chiefs monitoring the UK's mammoth vaccination rollout have not yet released any actual data detailing the real-world efficacy of either jab. Initial results are expected within days.   

Although the leaked findings are lower than the 95 per cent efficacy shown in Pfizer's original trial, top scientists today described them as 'amazing'. Efficacy is always higher in controlled studies because researchers use more young and healthy people to make the trials run smoothly and quickly. Older people — who are at the front of the queue for vaccines because they are most vulnerable — have weaker immune systems.

Reacting to the early results, Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease specialist at the University of East Anglia, said he was 'quite confident' ministers will be able to gradually ease lockdown within weeks, if they are proven to be true.

There are still questions about how effective jabs will be at stopping people from falling ill with the South African Covid variant, however, after studies indicated they are less effective against the mutant strain. But scientists are confident they will be potent enough to reduce Covid to 'the sniffles' and prevent vaccinated people from being hospitalised or dying — which is their main purpose. 

The news will come as a boost for lockdown-sceptic Tories, who yesterday savaged Matt Hancock for his 'forever lockdown' after the Health Secretary warned border restrictions might be needed until booster jabs arrive in the autumn. Backbenchers skewered the Downing Street dove as he unveiled the brutal measures aimed at stopping mutant variants — some of which are already spreading in Britain — from entering the country. 

As Mr Hancock ratcheted restrictions, his department announced 12,364 new Covid cases and 1,052 deaths. Both daily counts were 25 per cent lower than last Tuesday's figures.  

The leaked findings show the vaccines take three weeks to build up immunity in the elderly, while it starts after two weeks for younger people. 

Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, called the findings 'quite amazing.' He told The Sun: 'If these numbers are borne out, then they are very reassuring. If they are achieving 65 per cent protection after three weeks with both jabs, then I think that's really good.

'And that's a vindication of our current strategy as it protects more people than giving two doses three weeks apart. I am still, despite the South African strain, quite confident that we will see a gradual opening of the society, probably starting with schools opening early March.' 

A government source also told the newspaper that Downing Street would be proven right for approving the Oxford jab for the elderly, while other European countries decided not to give it to over-65s.

Germany, France, Spain and Sweden have all decided not to administer the Oxford vaccine to the older age bracket over a lack of data from the drug company.

The results echo findings coming out of Israel, where daily case rates for over-60s have plunged by 46 per cent since mid-January after rolling out the Pfizer and Oxford jabs. 

Hospital admissions have dropped by 35 per cent compared to mid-January, while admissions for younger adults have stayed flat and are even slightly higher now.

A similar disparity is seen in hospital admissions, with a 30 per cent decline for over-60s in the two weeks to February 1.

It comes after another 356,291 coronavirus jabs were administered on Monday, with 12.6million Brits having now received their first dose. 

With five days still to go, No10 is within touching distance of delivering on its target of injecting the 15million most vulnerable by February 15. 

The Government has said more than half of all UK adults should receive a coronavirus vaccine by May. 

Downing Street confirmed that the vaccine programme planned to reach all those aged 50 and over, as well as adults aged 16-65 in an at-risk group, by May – having previously said it aimed to do so 'by the spring'.

Mr Hancock warned that 'lots of things have got to go right' to hit the goal, including supply, but he said he was 'sure' it was achievable. More than 10.9 million first doses have already been given.

According to the Government's vaccines delivery plan, some 32 million people across the UK are estimated to fall into the first nine groups. There are 52.7 million people aged 18 and over in the UK.

The target was disclosed as the Cabinet Office announced that local elections in England and Wales would go ahead as planned on May 6 – though voters will have to wear face coverings and will be asked to take their own pen or pencil to mark their ballot.

It will be seen as indicative of lockdown restrictions easing in the spring, with reports that outdoor team and individual sports, as well as outdoor gatherings, could be possible within weeks of a planned return of schools from March 8.

But hopes of Britain's vaccine rollout bringing an end to brutal lockdown curbs any time soon were shot down yesterday by Mr Hancock, who unveiled a suite of new border curbs in the Commons, aimed at tackling new mutant strains.

As of Monday travellers from high-risk 'Red List' countries will be forced to spend 10 days in 'quarantine hotels', and all arrivals must test negative three times through gold-standard PCR coronavirus tests before being allowed to freely move around the UK.

Anyone who lies about whether they have been to places on the banned list recently will face up to 10 years in prison. 

Travel and hospitality bosses warned the UK faces a second summer write off as uncertainty over when restrictions will end squashes demand for holidays and social venues.

They called for reassurances that curbs will be eased from April to avoid pushing their industries 'over a cliff-edge'.

In a Commons statement, Mr Hancock was confronted by a series of senior Conservatives over when the restrictions might ease — and whether the goalposts were being shifted on relaxing the wider lockdown.

Former chief whip Mark Harper, chair of the lockdown-sceptic CRG bloc of around 70 MPs, urged the government to reconsider its approach with Covid likely to be a permanent issue.

'If the virus continues to mutate, surely the risk is going to be there forever,' he said. 

Tory MP Craig Mackinlay told MailOnline that he was sceptical about the border crackdown and it might do 'more damage than it tries to solve'. He added: 'This whole trying to stop things from coming in, I think we are way beyond that frankly. The virus does its own thing no matter where it is.' 

It came as one of Oxford's vaccine chiefs, Professor Andrew Pollard, said today the South African variant was not a 'reason for alarm' and jabs should work to prevent hospitalisations and deaths and reduce the disease to 'the sniffles'.

It comes after South Africa suspended the Oxford roll-out after finding the jab was ineffective against the mutant strain in the country. 

It comes after another strain, first identified in Bristol, was yesterday labelled a 'variant of concern' by scientists. 

Public Health England said it has now found 21 cases of this version of the virus, with 14 in Bristol and the South West, four in Manchester and three 'scattered' across the UK.

It is a version of the Kent variant – the dominant strain of the virus in England – which has mutated further to develop a change first found on the South African strain which may make vaccines less effective.

Because of this mutation named E484K, which also raises the risk of people getting reinfected after they already had Covid-19, experts are desperate to stamp it out.  

It becomes the third variant of concern found in Britain, alongside the now-dominant Kent variant and the South African one. 

A fourth – one of two strains from Brazil – is also listed by Public Health England but it has not yet been found in the UK.

Experts said they were worried about the Bristol variant's combination of mutations because it would be 'at least as transmissible' as the fast-spreading Kent variant but also potentially able to dodge immunity from vaccines.

Although it is not likely to take over and become dominant now, there is a risk it could come through when the Kent strain has been suppressed by vaccinations. 

The Department of Health announced today it had finished its surge testing – which is used to weed out these variants – in Woking, but started it in Lambeth, London.

The NHS vaccinated 352,480 people on Monday, taking the total number of Britons given their first dose to more than 12.6 million. 

Matt Hancock has now invited over-70s who have not yet had the jab to book an appointment after first ensuring that the most vulnerable were looked after. 

People in that age group can now schedule an appointment using the NHS booking service or those unable to get online can phone 119.

Mr Hancock said take-up of the vaccines has so far been 'significantly better than we hoped for', claiming it has hit a staggering 95 per cent in people in their late 70s, 91 per cent of over-80s and almost three quarters of people in their early 70s.

He said the Government had been expecting approximately 75 per cent, at a Downing Street briefing on Monday. 

Frontline health and social care workers, who are also at the top of the priority list, are also being urged to come forward and arrange an appointment if they've not had a dose.

And GP practices have been told to contact any extremely vulnerable patients who have still yet to receive their first injection.

Downing Street said it expects to have vaccinated all over-50s by the end of April, raising hopes that Britain could drop the vast majority of curbs in May.

Boris Johnson is under pressure to step up the reopening of the country as soon as the top nine groups - around 32 million people - are covered.

Britain is jabbing at record pace, dishing out more vaccines per person than any country in the world other than Israel. 

Boris Johnson is due to unveil his 'road map' for easing the lockdown in the week of February 22, by which time the four most vulnerable groups should have received vaccine doses.

Schools are set to be the first things back from March 8, but the concerns about mutant strains have sparked warnings from scientists that any relaxation must be slower. 

This article has been adapted from its original source.     

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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