The UK will start vaccinating the public the coronavirus next week: a major milestone in the global race to fight a pandemic that has killed 1.5 million people.
The UK government on Wednesday became the first Western country to do so officially authorize one of dozens of vaccines being developed since the pandemic began. Citing “months of rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data,” the UK approved the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which the trials proved to be safe and 95% effective in 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 were not clinically safe.”
The Pfizer vaccine is one of three to which final phase test data have been released so far. Test results for the second, made by Modern, proved to be 94% effective. Those responsible for the third, Oxford University and AstraZeneca, have published data showing 70% efficiency in general, although questions have been raised about the design of the trial. All vaccines require two shots to work. The UK has not yet approved the Modern vaccine or the University of Oxford / AstraZeneca.
In the United States, both the Pfizer and the Modern vaccine awaiting emergency approval of the Food and Drug Administration. On December 10, an FDA group will meet to consider clearing the Pfizer vaccine.
While initial vaccinations are likely to begin this month, making sure enough people receive it to control the pandemic will be a major logistical challenge for months. Companies that produce approved vaccines will have to make many millions of doses, and governments around the world will have to buy them, store them, and figure out how to get them to people as quickly as possible.
The Pfizer vaccine should be stored in a ultra-cold -70 degrees Celsius, creating additional challenges to distribute it easily and equitably.
Who should receive the first available vaccines is an intense debate. The first doses in the UK it will probably go to healthcare workers, because of its strong exposure to the virus, but also because the Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at extremely cold temperatures, which is easier to do in hospitals. Then there will be elderly people living in residences and people caring for them.
To the United States The CDC group voted Tuesday recommend that health workers and people living in residences should be vaccinated before the rest. The group’s recommendations will help state governors decide who has the highest priority.