The UK has become the first country to approve Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for widespread use, a landmark move which will see the drug made available from next week.
The development follows trial results made public in mid-November showing the vaccine, produced by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, had a 95-percent success rate and caused no serious side effects.
Based on new messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, the jab was found effective across different age groups and ethnicities, raising hopes it will play a significant role in ending the pandemic.
“It’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson after the approval by the UK’s independent medicines regulator.
However, it is still not known whether the Pfizer-BioNTech shots, estimated to cost about 15 British pounds ($20) per dose, can stop people infected with the novel coronavirus from spreading it to others.
It also remains to be seen how long the vaccine’s effect will last.
The UK, home to about 67 million people, has ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine – enough to inoculate 20 million people, as it is given in two injections, 21 days apart.
There are three routes for transporting the vaccine into the country, a programme officials have warned will be challenging because it needs to be shipped and stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94F), or below.
It is not yet clear exactly how many doses will arrive by the end of 2020, but 800,000 should be delivered from Pfizer’s manufacturing centre in Belgium in the coming days.
Care home staff and residents will be first in line to get vaccinated, followed by people older than 80, those deemed to be clinically vulnerable, and other health and social care workers.
Matt Hancock, health minister, said hospitals were ready to receive the doses.
The UK is battling Europe’s worst outbreak, with more than 1.6 million coronavirus cases recorded to date and more than 59,000 deaths.
Pfizer described the UK’s emergency-use authorisation as 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,” said CEO Albert Bourla.
“We are focused on moving with the same level of urgency to safely supply a high-quality vaccine around the world.”
The authorisation of the Pfizer-BioNTech drug for use could be followed by the approval of other promising vaccines, including those developed by US biotech firm Moderna and UK pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in collaboration with the University of Oxford.
Moderna’s costs roughly 25 British pounds ($33) per dose and offers a similar protection rate to Pfizer-BioNTech. It can be stored for up to six months at -20 degrees Celcius (-4F), although it is believed to remain stable at normal refrigerator temperatures for up to 30 days.
AstraZeneca-Oxford’s product is cheaper, about 3 British pounds ($4) per dose, and proved to be up to 90-percent effective in trials. It can be stored at refrigerator temperatures, meaning it potentially offers the best option for mass immunisation around the world.