Pfizer/BioNTech Vaccine Deemed Safe in the UK


Chloe Wong, Staff Writer

In a possible first step towards mass vaccination, United Kingdom (U.K.) health officials have deemed the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine safe for public use. The vaccine, which offers a 95% protection rate from COVID-19, was approved on Dec. 2 by the British Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. According to Pfizer, the first 800,000 doses of the vaccine should arrive in the coming days, marking the U.K. as the first Western nation to formally approve a vaccine.

BioNTech developed the vaccine in partnership with biotech giant Pfizer. In January, BioNTech decided it would commit itself to the development of a vaccine against the coronavirus, a disease that had emerged from China. Relatively unknown before the pandemic, BioNTech is owned by Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, the children of Turkish immigrants. The Mainz-based company was already partnering with Pfizer on a flu vaccine when they agreed to co-develop and distribute a coronavirus vaccine. 

“We are a next-generation immunotherapy company,” Sahin said on CNBC. “The technology behind this vaccine, the messenger RNA technology, and the vaccine candidates have been developed in Germany.”

Pfizer announced in November that a Phase 3 trial of the vaccine proved that it was effective in vulnerable patients and caused no serious side effects. Months into a pandemic that has killed over 1.5 million people worldwide, the U.K. has now ordered 40 million doses of that same vaccine, paving the way for other nations to begin the process of mass vaccination. But even without distribution, the development of the vaccine is a triumph: creating a vaccine is usually a process that takes years, but Pfizer conceived, produced, and refined their vaccine in under a year. 

“It [has only been] 12 months since the first recorded case of COVID-19,” Arne Akbar, president of the British Society for Immunology, said in a public statement. “To achieve this within this timescale is remarkable, and the researchers should be applauded.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the news “fantastic” during a press conference on Dec. 3. “We are no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year in the spring,” he said, “but rather on the sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed and together reclaim our lives.”

Amidst the recent lifting of a month-long lockdown, however, Prime Minister Johnson warned his citizens against excessive optimism. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Britain has had nearly 7 million cases of the coronavirus and 60,000 deaths. 

The Prime Minister also added that vaccine distribution would be difficult logistically. Vaccination will be conducted in large venues such as conference centers; around 50 hospitals are readying themselves for mass immunization, and general practitioners and pharmacies will also distribute the vaccine. However, the vaccine requires a storage temperature of -95° F, making transportation slightly challenging (in comparison, the vaccine in development by Moderna only requires a storage temperature of -4° F). And while the 40 million doses of the two-shot vaccine are enough for 20 million U.K. citizens, it is uncertain exactly who will get the vaccine and when. The elderly, sick, and vulnerable are highest on the priority list; several million Britons are expected to be vaccinated throughout December, with the first vaccinations in Scotland taking place on Dec. 8. 

The coronavirus threat is still far from extinguished, especially in third-world countries and the U.S., where cases top hundreds of thousands every day. But the development of the Pfizer vaccine and its future distribution in the U.K. may signal an event that seemed virtually impossible months ago—the beginning of the end of the pandemic. 


Photo courtesy of WESH.COM