US-based vaccine maker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech on Wednesday announced that they have secured emergency use authorisation for their COVID-19 vaccine in the UK. The development has made the UK one of the first countries to start immunisation of its population, as early as next week, against the deadly virus that has affected millions of lives.
While the UK has granted permission, other countries aren’t far behind. The US and the European Union are also vetting the Pfizer shot along with a similar vaccine made by competitor biotech firm Moderna Inc.
Pfizer said it would immediately begin shipping limited supplies to the UK and has been gearing up for even wider distribution if given a similar nod by the US Food and Drug Administration, a decision expected as early as next week.
But doses everywhere are scarce and initial supplies will be rationed until more is manufactured in the first several months of next year.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla called the UK decision “a historic moment”. “We are focusing on moving with the same level of urgency to safely supply a high-quality vaccine around the world,” Bourla said in a statement.
Pfizer’s vaccine’s storage & distribution a major challenge
While the UK has ordered enough Pfizer vaccine for 20 million people, it’s not clear how many will arrive by 2020-end. The Pfizer vaccine has a major storage and distribution challenge as it must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures.
Two doses three weeks apart are required for protection. First in line, the UK government says, are frontline health care workers and nursing home residents, followed by older adults.
British regulators also are considering another vaccine made by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned “we must first navigate a hard winter” of restrictions to try to curb the virus until there’s enough vaccine to go around.
Efficacy of 95% in early results
The shots made by Pfizer and BioNTech were tested in tens of thousands of people. And while that study isn’t complete, early results suggest the vaccine is 95% effective at preventing mild to severe COVID-19 disease. The companies told regulators that of the first 170 infections detected in study volunteers, only eight were among people who’d received the actual vaccine and the rest had gotten a dummy shot.
The companies also reported no serious side effects, although vaccine recipients may experience temporary pain and flu-like reactions immediately after injections.
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