Pfizer and BioNTech say they were granted clearance on Wednesday for the emergency use of their COVID-19 vaccine in Britain, the world’s first coronavirus vaccine backed by rigorous science – and a major step towards ending the pandemic.
The move makes Britain one of the first countries to start vaccinating its people as it tries to curb Europe’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak.
Pfizer said it would immediately begin shipping limited supplies to the UK – and that it was preparing for even wider distribution if the US Food and Drug Administration had given it a similar nod, a decision expected next week.
But doses are scarce everywhere and initial supplies will be rationed until more is manufactured in the first months of next year.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla called the UK decision a “historic moment”.
“We are focusing on the same level of urgency to safely deliver a high-quality vaccine around the world,” Bourla said in a statement.
Although the UK has ordered enough Pfizer vaccines for 20 million people, it’s unclear how many will arrive by the end of the year. In addition to distribution challenges, Pfizer vaccine must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures. Two doses three weeks apart are needed for protection.
The UK government has said frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents will be the first to be vaccinated, followed by older adults.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that ‘we have to get through a tough winter first’ of restrictions to try to curb the virus until there are enough vaccines for the UK.
Each country has different rules for determining when an investigational vaccine is safe and effective enough to be used. Intense political pressure to be the first to launch a rigorously scientifically tested shot colored the race in the United States and Britain, even as researchers pledged not to cut corners. In contrast, China and Russia have offered different vaccinations to their citizens ahead of advanced stage testing.