What a moment for the world — and for science. On Wednesday, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved by the UK medicines regulator, making it the first coronavirus vaccine to be approved for mass use in any country after large-scale clinical trials. The vaccine is also one of the most effective, protecting 95 per cent of recipients from disease. There is light on the horizon amid the pandemic’s winter gloom.
The approval means the first doses can begin arriving from Belgium. First in line for the jab will be those working and living in care homes, healthcare workers and the elderly, who will be prioritised to receive the first supplies due to arrive this year. Altogether the UK will have 40m doses by next year, enough for 20m people.
It is a stunning achievement. The World Health Organization was first notified on December 31, 2019 of a pneumonia of unknown cause, later ascribed to a novel coronavirus. Scientists have raced from identifying a new disease to developing a vaccine within a year. The Pfizer/BioNTech product also uses a new technology, called messenger RNA, long touted as a game-changer. While conventional vaccines deliver a piece of viral protein into the body to prompt an immune response, mRNA vaccines send in just the genetic code, allowing the body’s own cells to churn out the viral protein. That has fed hopes that these types of vaccines will be easier and faster to produce. The technology, which also underpins Moderna’s vaccine, has lived up to the hype — exactly when needed.
Luck also played a role. Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s chief executive, alluded to this in early November when preliminary trial results looked encouraging: “The good message for mankind is that we now understand that Covid-19 can be prevented by a vaccine.” Until then, nobody knew for sure if this was a vaccine-preventable disease.
Optimism must be accompanied by forbearance. The UK rollout, unprecedented in logistics and scale, will take until next summer. That means that non-pharmaceutical interventions such as distancing and masking will be required well into 2021. We do not yet know how long vaccine protection lasts, or whether it will stop transmission.
Nor can we assume that people will want the vaccine. A report last month by the British Academy and the Royal Society suggested 9 per cent of people would be “very unlikely” to have a vaccine, and 27 per cent uncertain. Melinda Mills, Nuffield professor of sociology at Oxford university, has called for a public conversation to address concerns about safety and build support for the vaccine. This work must be accelerated, particularly to allay fears that vaccines are being rushed through.
This first UK approval still raises some difficult issues: will it affect other vaccine trials? There is an ethical imperative to provide an approved vaccine as soon as it is available. Yet volunteers offered the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which seems highly protective, may now pull out of other trials, compromising the collection of long-term safety data for other candidates. Novavax, Janssen and Oxford/AstraZeneca are all operating UK trials. Ideally, these need to continue in order to guarantee a variety of vaccines and healthy supplies. The world needs billions of doses, including options that do not require ultracold supply chains.
The pandemic is, after all, a global emergency, not a national one. This milestone is a poignant symbol that science transcends national borders: the vaccine was developed in Germany by the children of Turkish immigrants; tested in Germany, the US, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina; manufactured in Belgium and first approved in the UK.
Truly, what a moment for the world.
The writer is a science commentator