There is growing hope that a vaccine against coronavirus may be given the green light by health regulators by the end of this year to be rolled out for a vaccination programme in six months' time or even less, according to a United Kingdom media report.
The vaccine candidate under trial by University of Oxford scientists in collaboration with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is the furthest in the process of trials and, according to a report in 'The Times', it could be given the required clearances by Christmas in December.
The newspaper quoted UK government sources involved in the making and distribution of vaccines as saying that a full vaccine roll-out programme for adults could take six months or less after approval.
"We are looking at closer to six months and it is likely to be far shorter than that," a government source said.
Under a protocol developed by the UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, any approved vaccine will then be given to all over 65s, followed by younger adults at higher risk, which could include those from ethnic minorities as well as those with serious health issues based on their higher risk from the deadly virus. People over 50 will be next in line, with younger adults at the back of the queue.
The UK government has ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine once it is ready for rollout and the doses are being manufactured before it has been shown to be successful in order to save time once it clears all the regulatory stages.
According to the newspaper report, scientists on the trial are hopeful that they will get results before the end of this year, and that they will at the very least show that it prevents 50 per cent of infections, the threshold for success.
If it is approved by the regulators, the UK's National Health Service is said to be in a position to begin mass vaccination almost immediately.
There are others within the UK government, however, who are more cautious on the timelines as vaccinating every adult is a big challenge. A Royal Society report this week, co-authored by an Indian-origin scientist, warned of the massive uphill task ahead in producing and distributing a vaccine.
"Even when the vaccine is available, it does not mean within a month everybody will be vaccinated. We're talking about six to nine months to a year after a vaccine is approved," said Professor Nilay Shah, head of chemical engineering at Imperial College London.
The report called for the criteria for vaccine prioritisation to be 'defined and made explicit' and then "public dialogue and engagement to manage expectations and understanding of vaccine effectiveness, safety, side effects, availability, and access".
The government's Department of Health sought to downplay the findings and stressed that its planning process will ensure a speedy roll-out.
"This study fails to reflect the enormous amount of planning and preparation that has taken place across government to quickly roll out a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine," said a department spokesperson.
"We are confident we have adequate provision or transport, PPE [personal protective equipment] and logistical expertise to deploy a Covid-19 vaccine across the country as quickly as possible," the spokesperson said.