The UK will start vaccinating the public against the coronavirus next week – a major milestone in the global race against a pandemic that killed 1.5 million people.
The British government on Wednesday became the first western country to officially approve one of the dozen or so vaccines that have been developed since the pandemic began. Citing “months of rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data,” the UK approved the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, which have been shown to be safe and 95% effective at blocking COVID-19.
In a television interview, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock praised the speed of his government’s regulators, but added: “The vaccine would not be approved if it was not clinically safe.”
The Pfizer vaccine is one of three vaccines for which late-stage experimental data have been published. The test results for the second from Moderna showed that they are 94% effective. Third university creators, Oxford University and AstraZeneca, have released data showing an overall effectiveness of 70%, although questions about the design of the study have been raised. All vaccines require two shots to work. The UK has not yet approved the Moderna or Oxford University / AstraZeneca vaccine.
In the US, both the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine are awaiting emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration. On December 10th, an FDA panel will meet to consider approving the Pfizer vaccine.
While the first vaccinations are expected to start this month, ensuring over months that enough people have received them will be a major logistical challenge to keep the pandemic under control. The companies that make approved vaccines have to make many millions of doses, and governments around the world have to buy, store, and figure out how to get them to people as quickly as possible.
Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored in extremely cold temperatures of -70 degrees Celsius, which creates additional challenges for easy and fair distribution.
Who should receive the first available vaccinations is the subject of intense debate. The first doses in the UK will likely go to healthcare workers given their exposure to the virus, but also because the Pfizer vaccine has to be stored in extremely cold temperatures, which is easier in hospitals. Next come the elderly who live in nursing homes and the people who care for them.
In the US, a CDC panel voted Tuesday that health care workers and those living in nursing homes should be vaccinated before anyone else. The panel’s recommendations help governors decide who will receive the highest priority.