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February 6, 2021

The head of the UK’s coronavirus vaccination task force has said he is optimistic that the government will meet its target of vaccinating all over-50s by May.

No 10 confirmed on Friday that the vaccine programme was intended to reach all those over 50 and those aged 16 to 65 in at-risk groups by May, having previously said it aimed to do so “by the spring”.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme Dr Clive Dix said: “I’m very optimistic we’ll definitely meet the May target. Every time we’ve been set an objective on the task force, we’ve met it, and we’ll work day and night to ensure we meet whatever target that’s feasible.”

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Friday that the government planned to offer all over-50s the first dose by May, but added that “lots of things have got to go right to hit that goal”.

Dix also said a vaccine-resistant variant is a possibility, but that the UK will be “ahead of the game”.

He said the UK was already tracking variants and predicting future strains in order to prepare vaccines before they have even appeared.

“The UK is probably at the forefront of surveying these variants. We have actually sequenced nearly 50% of all the viruses that have been sequenced in this pandemic at the Sanger Centre in Cambridge,” he said.

“Taking that data, and having our scientists look very seriously at what’s emerging, where the mutants are occurring and what they might do to the proteins, we can kind of second guess mutations that haven’t even occurred yet and go ahead and make those [vaccines].”

Dix said the task force was working with the German manufacturer CureVac to set up a “library of future vaccines, just in small amounts” so that if a new variant does occur “we can just do a quick clinical study to make sure it works and then start manufacturing it”.

Asked if a coronavirus variant might emerge which does not respond to the current vaccines, Dix said this was of course possible.

Note: The number of people given a first dose or second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine each day. Daily data only available from 11 Jan 2020, weekly averages used for dates before this. Line chart based on the average number of first dose vaccinations each day in a given week. Data: data.gov.uk

Once the UK has enough vaccine doses, it plans to share doses with the rest of the world, Dix said.

“When [the manufacturers] are at full speed, and vaccines come through, if we don’t need them we won’t store them. We will help the world with them, and every other country will do the same,” he said.

The number of vaccinations given on Friday across the UK was 480,560, up more than 66,000 on last week. As of Friday, 16.4% of the UK population had received their first dose.