Rushing it Out: UK Becomes First Country to Approve Coronavirus Vaccine

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 02: Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock arrives at number 10, Downing Street on December 2, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
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AFP — Britain on Wednesday became the first western country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine for general use, announcing a rollout of Pfizer-BioNTech’s jab from next week in a major advance for humanity’s fightback against the coronavirus.

A mere 12 months after the pandemic began in China, the UK’s independent medicines regulator gave its green light in double-quick time but insisted safety had come first.

“Everybody can be confident that no corners whatsoever have been cut,” Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) chief executive June Raine told a news conference.

“The public deserve nothing less,” she said, stressing her agency’s certification process was no different to counterparts in the United States and the European Union.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the “fantastic” news, while urging the public to remain cautious on the day that England exited a four-week lockdown and re-imposed regional curbs.

“It’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again,” he said.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said that starting with care home residents and health and care staff, Britain’s state-run National Health Service will begin with 800,000 doses “early next week”.

That will be ramped up to “millions” of inoculations by the end of the year.

“Help is on its way,” he told BBC radio.

The breakthrough will encourage hopes the world can finally get back on course in 2021 after a year of traumatic losses, both human and economic.

The novel coronavirus has killed nearly 1.5 million people since the outbreak emerged in China 12 months ago. At least 63 million cases have been registered.

– ‘Science will win’ –

Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said the UK certification was a “historic moment in the fight against Covid-19”.

“This authorisation is a goal we have been working toward since we first declared that science will win, and we applaud the MHRA for their ability to conduct a careful assessment and take timely action to help protect the people of the UK,” he said.

US giant Pfizer and German newcomer BioNTech added that they expected further regulatory decisions from other countries “in the coming days and weeks”.

The United States and Europe on Tuesday fleshed out plans to administer Covid-19 vaccines as soon as they gain approval, with a US panel recommending that health care workers and nursing home residents be given top priority.

Other vaccines expected to come on stream soon include ones from Moderna and AstraZeneca/Oxford University, which has strong backing from the UK government.

Scientists also acclaimed the UK news but cautioned that logistical challenges remained. The Pfizer-BioNTech jab has to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), requiring specialist freezers.

It requires two doses 21 days apart, and the MHRA said immunity kicks in a week after the second dose.

“It’s not easy but we’ve got those plans in place,” Hancock said.

Campaigners and governments have stepped up calls to ensure poorer countries enjoy equal access to successful vaccines.

The AstraZeneca/Oxford candidate can be kept in regular refrigerators and is being offered at cost price, but is undergoing further data analysis after questions were raised over the effectiveness of its dosage regime.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have both shown effectiveness against the coronavirus of around 95 percent. Both are based on new mRNA technology.

The mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) is used to deliver genetic material to the body that makes human cells create a protein from the virus. This trains the immune system to be ready to attack if it encounters the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

Around 40 percent of US deaths have come from among the country’s 24 million care workers and nursing home residents.

The country has the world’s highest coronavirus toll, while Britain has the highest toll in Europe.

– ‘Hold our nerve’ –

The announcement came as England exited its month-long coronavirus lockdown, but most of the country remained under restrictions as a new regional system for cutting infection rates kicked in.

Prime Minister Johnson, a Covid survivor, succeeded in winning a vote on the measures in parliament late Tuesday, despite significant opposition within his own Conservative ranks which underlined growing fatigue around the world with curbs.

“All we need to do now is to hold our nerve until these vaccines are indeed in our grasp and indeed being injected into our arms,” he told lawmakers before the vote.

Until then “we cannot afford to relax, especially during the cold months of winter”, he warned.

Russia was the first country to announce a successful vaccine candidate, dubbed Sputnik V, and has begun a mass coronavirus vaccination campaign for its military. But the drug has not undergone Western clinical trials.

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