Your vaccine questions answered

Prof Jeremy Brown of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation answers viewers' questions on Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

Video Transcript

SOPHIE RIDGE: Professor Jeremy Brown sits on the UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization. Thank you very much for being with us today. And before we get to viewers' questions, I've just got a couple from myself, if you wouldn't mind.

Half of UK adults have now received their first dose of a vaccine-- a huge milestone, of course. But there are issues with supply over the next month. How concerned should we be about those issues, and do you think they will definitely be resolved after four weeks?

JEREMY BROWN: The truthful answer-- so good morning, Sophie-- is I don't really know, because the supply side of things is not really what the JVCI is involved with. I mean, it does look like we are-- I mean, we have been making a vaccine program which is doing almost 5 million a week, which would have been a fantastic result, if we could maintain that. But it's always been supply of vaccine that has been the concern that might delay things. And yes, I suspect our vaccine program will be delayed slightly compared to where we thought it might have been a few weeks ago. But then, on that point, we're actually ahead of schedule. So we're probably going to fall back to the original schedule and end up with everyone who's an adult being offered the vaccine by towards the middle to end of the summer, I suspect.

SOPHIE RIDGE: OK, so not too long to wait, then, for all adults, certainly. Now, as you say, we've been making some great progress. We're going to have vaccinated all the top nine priority groups, and by mid-April. They accounted for 99% of deaths in the first wave. At the beginning of the program, we heard from Steve Baker, who was saying that because the success of the vaccination program, we should now look at lifting some of the restrictions. What's your take on that?

JEREMY BROWN: OK, yeah, this is a slightly complicated and tricky thing to describe. But at the moment, we have roughly sort of 90%, 95% of people who have been-- who are high-risk being vaccinated. But that 5% or 10% of people are still a significant number. And also, we may only have done one dose of vaccine, which gives most of the protection but not all of the protection. Until we've gotten the second dose in and everybody's been vaccinated, there is a little degree of infection that can still occur.

So if you completely lift all restrictions, there will be a wave of infections crossing the country. And those that are not protected, either because the first vaccine hasn't worked very well in them and they need their second dose, or because they have not had a vaccine at this point in time but are still vulnerable, they will get infections, and they will probably end up in hospital and die. So if you lift restrictions, even though most people who are at risk have been vaccinated, the portion that have not still represents a very large number of people who could end up with serious infection.

SOPHIE RIDGE: That's a very clear explanation, thank you. And there has, of course, been some people who are slightly hesitant about getting a vaccine, a bit worried. And, of course, what we've seen in Europe with the AstraZeneca vaccine may not have helped things. Just take France, as an example. First, they only allowed that jab for the under-65s, then it was suspended, then the suspension was lifted, and now it's only allowed for over-55s. The president described it as quasi-effective, of course, and then the prime minister took it. And do you think some of this is more about politics than science?

JEREMY BROWN: OK, So that's-- I can't answer for the politicians and why they're making certain statements, but I don't think the vaccine committees in the different countries are making their decisions because of politics, but I do think they've been misguided in the way they've approach this, where they felt that the precautionary principle was that because of the issue raised about blood clots, they should stop the vaccination program, the AstraZeneca, until they looked into it. Whereas in fact, actually, if you looked at the data, it was unlikely to be a serious issue in the first place, and the benefit of the vaccine far outweighs any potential risk due to blood clots, et cetera.

So the numbers are like 100,000-fold more likely that you would die of COVID and that the vaccine would prevent that than that anything could possibly happen with the blood clots. And so I think stopping and starting the program was a strategic error by the other countries.

SOPHIE RIDGE: And it could have led to more deaths.

JEREMY BROWN: Well, yes, literally. I mean, I think it's a bit complicated, because, again you stop the vaccine program for a few days, what that means is that the vaccine program is pushed back for a few days. And perhaps, maybe, in the scheme of things, that's not a great loss. But actually, at this point in time, they are having a third wave of infection. So actually, it does represent a delay in the vaccine program just when they need it the most. So I do think that was not well thought out.

SOPHIE RIDGE: OK, let's bring in some questions from viewers who've had a great response, actually. And this one from Jeanette on Instagram, she asks, I got the Pfizer job the first time. Will I definitely get it for my second jab? Because I'm reading there may be a shortage of Pfizer in the next few months.

JEREMY BROWN: Yeah, as far as I understand-- again, I'm not an expert on supply, but everyone who's got the Pfizer the first time will get the Pfizer the second time, and AstraZeneca, [INAUDIBLE] the same thing, AstraZeneca the second time. And the supply has been matched to allow that to happen. So that should happen.

SOPHIE RIDGE: Reassuringly news there for Jeanette. And this is a question we got through Twitter. Once we've vaccinated the top nine cohorts in the UK and we have enough supply for second doses, doesn't it make sense to assess the rest of Europe, where deaths and hospitalizations are rising?

JEREMY BROWN: Yeah, this one, I struggle with this a little bit, I have to say. I mean, there's a certain amount of I'd like to get the whole country sorted as quickly as possible. But the issue about vaccinating the rest of the world, there's an ethical and also self-interest in doing so.

I suppose the question is, what can we do to help the Europeans with their vaccine program? And I don't actually think that the UK can help that much, because supply isn't necessarily the problem anymore in Europe. And it's sort of the rollout, and how you deliver it, and how you convince the local population to take it which is the problems. And those really are local questions for the European countries themselves. I think it's a different question for the developing world, where delivering the vaccines in the developing world is going to be an immense task and very complex. And I do believe the UK should contribute in a big way as much as it can.

SOPHIE RIDGE: OK, and this is a question from Jo Edwards. We've got a lot of similar questions to this, actually. She asks, what is the plan for immunosuppressed people? I've had both doses of the vaccine, but I haven't developed any antibodies. What's the plan?

JEREMY BROWN: OK, so this is quite close to my heart, because my clinical practice is I look after people who have got lung problems, who-- with leukemia or bone marrow transplants. And the infection in that population is a big issue due to their weak immune systems.

So the first thing I can say, I can be a little bit reassuring, that the question I've seen in the email is that actually, she's not developed antibodies to the vaccine. The question-- that actually may not reflect that she has no immune system response to the vaccine, because there are multiple levels to the immune response to the vaccine. The antibody that the NHS measures is the n-antigen, and you would not get an antibody response to that if you've been vaccinated because the vaccine doesn't contain the n-antigen. It contains the spike, the s-antigen. So that's--

SOPHIE RIDGE: I'm sorry, you have a great answer to that question, definitely, and it will be a bit of reassurance there, I think, for Jo. [? Simon ?] [? Asha ?] posted this question on Instagram. How long will the COVID vaccine last before having to receive additional doses in the future?

JEREMY BROWN: Yeah, the simple answer is I don't know, and nobody knows, because we've not had long enough to see. I mean, what we need to know is what the antibody response looks like 12 months after vaccination. And as the clinical trials were published sort of November, December of last year, we're going to have to wait until autumn before we can actually answer that question with any degree of confidence.

SOPHIE RIDGE: And just a final question here. This is from Twitter. This is from [? Kayren. ?] He asks, what's the point of vaccines if, once everyone eligible has had the jab, we're still expected to follow mask and social distancing rules? I don't expect this to be asked, because it rocks the boat, which, of course, makes me really want to ask this question. So what is the point of vaccines?

JEREMY BROWN: Yeah, I think I answered that question a little bit earlier. I mean, essentially, until we can suppress infection going around the country-- which means vaccinating everybody-- then some degree of social distancing or protection is going to be required, just because even a small proportion of people who have not been vaccinated, or where the vaccine has not worked very well, would be at a high risk of disease if we had no control of infection.

And the control of the infection comes in once a very high proportion of the country have been vaccinated. We now know that the vaccine does prevent transmission to a degree, but that only works on a population level once you have vaccinated a high proportion of the population. So that's phase two of the vaccine program.

SOPHIE RIDGE: Some really fascinating answers there, I'm sure, that the viewers will be really happy with those responses. Just one final one from me, if I may, before we let you go. Just to clarify, are you expecting every adult in the UK to have received the first dose by the end of July, or do you think that could now slip into August?

JEREMY BROWN: I don't know, and I think July, August, those are the ballpark areas where where we would hope that every adult has been offered their first does of the vaccine.

SOPHIE RIDGE: OK, that is very helpful. Thank you so much for being on the program. Thank you for asking our questions as well. Much appreciated.

JEREMY BROWN: Right, bye-bye.