People will not be able to pay to jump the coronavirus inoculation queue for many months, public health officials and companies insisted after the UK regulator became the first in Europe or North America to authorise a Covid-19 vaccine.
“I can say clearly and confidently that there are no plans to supply the private sector for the foreseeable future — no chance at all,” said Ben Osborn, Pfizer UK country manager, after the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Wednesday.
“Equity is at the heart of our decision to supply only the NHS,” Mr Osborn added.
He was confident that the Pfizer supply chain was secure enough to prevent unauthorised diversions of the vaccine to the private market.
Public health officials in the UK pointed out that, even if companies were willing to sell their product for private use, anyone seeking to receive it in that way would be at the back of the queue, behind countries and states that had already pre-ordered millions of doses.
Manufacturers would break the terms of their supply contracts if they diverted precious stocks to private clinics or hospitals ahead of government purchasers. In addition, regulations would prevent the sale of vaccines on the open market.
Most private clinics are not expecting to offer coronavirus inoculations at least until the NHS has completed the first phase of its public programme. This initial rollout will prioritise everyone aged 50 or over, health and social care workers and people with underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk of serious Covid-19 symptoms.
Neil Haughton, president of the Independent Doctors’ Federation and a general practitioner at the Portobello Clinic in London, said he would be “astonished” if any vaccine could legally be bought privately for many months in the UK.
Speaking about the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be stored at -70C, transported in dry ice and used within 5 days of being removed from the ultra-cold freezer, he noted that most private clinics are “not huge so . . . the logistics of doing it without the infrastructure of the NHS will be exceptionally difficult”.
Mark Ali, founder of the Private Harley Street Clinic in London, said he has received calls every day from clients about when they will be able to access doses of a coronavirus vaccine. He hoped that early next year “some of it could enter into the private market”.
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“My view is that people should be able to exercise their civil liberty,” Dr Ali said. But he added that “if the government says it shouldn’t be allowed in private practice, if that’s the law, we’d respect that.”
Dr Haughton speculated that the vaccine would only become available privately in the UK after around 40-50 per cent of the population had been inoculated by the NHS. He pointed to examples of vaccines for children which cannot be accessed by private clinics because they are part of a national programme.
In the more distant future, when the pandemic is over, coronavirus vaccines might follow the pattern of flu vaccines, where healthy individuals under the age of 50 cannot get a flu jab through the NHS but many seek it privately instead.
A senior executive at a leading vaccine company said the industry was worried about counterfeiters producing fakes and selling them on the black market. Anyone offered a private Covid-19 jab when authorised supplies are tight should beware of fakes, he said.
Dr Haughton also raised concerns that 250 private GP practices had not been accounted for in the government’s vaccine plan, given that the staff and patients are not on NHS lists.
He wrote to the government’s new minister for vaccine rollout, Nadhim Zahawi, on Monday, to say that thousands of private patients “will not be registered with an NHS GP at all and this means they are not on any NHS lists of the vulnerable and elderly who will be prioritised for access”.
In the letter, seen by the Financial Times, he said he was “not seeking to queue-jump or profiteer” but that it “does not seem fair that such patients should be disadvantaged and put at risk of coronavirus infection because they choose to receive primary care from an independent provider”.
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