By Karim El-Bar
LONDON (AA) - The British Medical Association (BMA) on Saturday urged the UK government to reduce the gap between the first and second doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to six weeks, according to a letter seen by the BBC.
This is in line with a recommendation by the World Health Organization (WHO), but the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has chosen a 12-week gap so that more people get their first dose sooner.
Over 5 million Brits have been given a dose of COVID-19 vaccine so far. The news comes after data from Israel showed that the efficacy of a single Pfizer vaccine dose was just 33%.
The BBC saw a private letter from the BMA to Dr. Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, which said the UK’s approach “has become increasingly isolated internationally” and “is proving evermore difficult to justify.”
“The absence of any international support for the UK’s approach is a cause of deep concern and risks undermining public and the profession’s trust in the vaccination programme,” the letter said.
The BMA also said that second doses may not be guaranteed after a 12-week period, “given the unpredictability of supplies.”
The BMA's council chairman Dr. Chaand Nagpaul told the BBC in an interview: “What we’re saying is that the UK should adopt this best practice based on international professional opinion.
“Most nations in the world are facing challenges similar to the UK in having limited vaccine supply and also wanting to protect their population maximally.
“No other nation has adopted the UK’s approach. We think the flexibility that the WHO offers of extending to 42 days is being stretched far too much to go from six weeks right through to 12 weeks.”
“Obviously the protection will not vanish after six weeks but what we do not know is what level of protection will be offered … we should not be extrapolating data where we don’t have it,” he said.
“I do understand the trade-off and the rationale but if that was the right thing to do then we would see other nations following suit.”
Richard Vautrey, the chair of the BMA's General Practitioners Committee, told Sky News: “We are still not doing what the World Health Organization and other European countries are doing but we need to understand the data … to really fully understand what level of protection is given after one dose.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The decision by the MHRA [The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] to change vaccine dosage intervals followed a thorough review of the data and was in line with the recommendations of the UK's four chief medical officers.
“Both vaccines provide a high degree of protection after the first dose, and the government has closely followed the guidance of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, which was clear that we should give as many people as possible some level of immunity initially.”
- South Africa variant
Meanwhile, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock was recorded saying that the South Africa variant of COVID-19 could reduce the efficacy of vaccines by half.
He made his comments during a video call with business leaders and travel agents on Tuesday, and local media outlets, including the Mail Online and Sky News received a recording of it.
Hancock said: “There is evidence in the public domain, although we are not sure of this data so I wouldn't say this in public, but that the South African variant reduces by about 50% the vaccine efficacy.”
“We're testing that and we've got some of the South African variant in Porton Down, and we're testing it,” he said.
“We've got a clinical trial in South Africa to check that the AstraZeneca vaccine works,” he added.
“Nevertheless, if we vaccinated the population, and then you got in a new variant that evaded the vaccine, then we'd be back to square one.”
The government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, was asked about Hancock’s comments at Friday’s news conference.
“It is the case that both the South African and Brazilian identified variants have more differences in shape which might mean they are recognized differently by antibodies,” he said.
“I think it is too early to know the effect that will have on the vaccination in people and it is worth remembering that the response of the vaccine is very, very high antibody levels, so they may overcome some of this. We don't know but there's obviously a cause for concern."
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The government is closely monitoring any new variants of concern, including those from South Africa and will continue to take all necessary steps to protect the public.”