The U.K. became the first Western nation to grant emergency-use authorization for a Covid-19 vaccine, clearing a shot developed by Pfizer Inc. of the U.S. and BioNTech SE of Germany to be distributed in limited numbers within days. The two-shot vaccine is also being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S., where a similar authorization could come later this month and a rollout before the end of the year.
The U.K. green light on Wednesday punctuates a month’s long sprint by the two drugmakers, which teamed up earlier this year and then pulled ahead of two other Western pharmaceutical companies, each with its own promising shot. Vaccines typically take years to bring to market. It also marks a key milestone in efforts to translate a promising new vaccine technology into a widely available shot. It was developed, tested, and authorized and is now poised to be distributed amid a pandemic that has sickened tens of millions of people and killed more than 1.4 million around the world.
“We believe it is really the start of the end of the pandemic,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told CNN in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla hailed the emergency authorization as “a historic moment in the fight against Covid-19.” The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine — enough to vaccinate 20 million people. Hancock told the BBC that an initial 800,000 doses would be delivered from Pfizer’s facilities in Belgium to the UK next week, and “many millions” more before the end of the year.
Elderly people in care homes, those who care for them, health workers and other vulnerable people will be top of the priority list. The vaccine has been rolled out at extraordinary speed, from conception to approval in around 11 months, according to BioNTech. The process usually takes years.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the news “fantastic” in a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, saying that “we are no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year in the spring, but rather on the sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed, and together reclaim our lives.”
But, as a month-long lockdown lifted across England, he urged the public not to get “carried away with over optimism or falling into the naive belief that our struggle is over.” The UK health department said the approval “follows months of rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data” by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which had “concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness.