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UK vaccination drive expands as virus toll nears 100,000

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Pedestrians wearing face masks against the coronavirus pandemic walk in Kensington Gardens as snow falls in London, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

LONDON – Britain is expanding a coronavirus vaccination program that has seen almost 6 million people get the first of two doses — even as the country’s death toll in the pandemic approaches 100,000.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Sunday that three-quarters of the U.K.’s over-80s have received a vaccine shot. He said three-quarters of nursing home residents have also had their first jab.

Almost 5.9 million doses of vaccine had been administered by Saturday. Health officials aim to give 15 million people, including everyone over 70, a first vaccine shot by Feb. 15, and cover the entire adult population by September.

Britain is inoculating people with two vaccines — one made by U.S. pharma firm Pfizer and German company BioNTech, the other by U.K.-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca and Oxford University. It has authorized a third, developed by Moderna.

It is giving them at doctors’ offices, hospitals, pharmacies and vaccination centers set up in conference halls, sports stadiums and other large venues. Thirty more locations are opening this week, including a former IKEA store and a museum of industrial history that was used as a set for the TV show “Peaky Blinders.”

Britain’s vaccination campaign is a rare success in a country with Europe’s worst confirmed coronavirus outbreak. The U.K. has recorded 97,329 deaths among people who tested positive, including 1,348 new deaths reported Saturday.

The U.K. is set within days to become the fifth country in the world to record 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico — all of which have much larger populations than Britain's 67 million people.

Some health experts have questioned the Conservative government’s decision to give the two vaccine doses up to 12 weeks apart, rather than the recommended three weeks, in order to offer as many people as possible their first dose quickly.

AstraZeneca has said it believes a first dose of its vaccine offers protection after 12 weeks but Pfizer says it has not tested the efficacy of its jab after such a long gap.

The British Medical Association says the government should “urgently review” the policy.

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