UK approves Pfizer, becomes the first country to roll out Covid-19 vaccine

Pfizer, which is exporting its vaccine from a plant in Belgium, will place 4 million doses at the disposal of the National Health Service this month
Britain will be the first country in the West to roll out a Covid-19 vaccine, beating the United States and Europe in a race to control the pandemic that has left close to 1.5 million dead globally. UK’s drug authority—Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)--on Wednesday granted an emergency licence to the antidote developed by American pharma major Pfizer along with Germany’s BioNTech, inspiring confidence in people and economies around the world after a year of extreme pain and losses.    

With 800,000 doses expected to be delivered over the next few days, inoculations will begin next week. The MHRA head, Dr June Raine, has given an assurance that “no corners have been cut” in the process. Elaborating on the safety aspects, the Department of Health and Social Care said the licence was granted after months of rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data by experts at the MHRA who have concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness.

While the UK government’s announcement went viral, Russian President Vladimir Putin told his health officials to begin widespread vaccinations next week. According to Putin, Russia has produced around 2 million doses of Sputnik vaccine so far.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted, “It’s fantastic that @MHRAgovuk has formally authorised the @Pfizer/@BioNTech_Group vaccine for Covid-19.” He added, “It’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again.”

But, health secretary Matt Hancock admitted the task of handling the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine will be “challenging”. It has to be preserved at minus 70C degree temperature. Most general practitioner surgeries would not thus be able to administer it. A network of 50 hospitals and specially built vaccination centres will be entrusted to provide the injections.

A Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, constituted for the purpose, will soon publish its priority chart regarding the order in which recipients of the injection will be prioritised. Previously, care home residents, who were the worst affected in the first wave of the epidemic in spring, were at the top of the pile. The logistical hurdle of having to store the vaccine in exceptionally freezing condition, though, means it may take longer to achieve this goal. Now, hospital workers and all above 80 years of age will lead the way. The next batch will comprise those over 75, then over 70 and so on until all in the 50 plus category are covered. The rest of Britons or UK residents will be selected as per need.

Pfizer, which is exporting its vaccine from a plant in Belgium, will place 4 million doses at the disposal of the National Health Service this month and 40 million by the end of March.

Although work on its indigenous Oxford University vaccine, which could be available in India during the first quarter of 2021, was promising, the Johnson government took a punt on the BioNTech research as well. The move has paid off, according to officials.

The Oxford vaccine – to be produced by AstraZeneca in the UK – is expected to apply for authorisation from the MHRA this month. If given a nod, it will facilitate a faster programme of jabs, as this composition requires refrigeration at one-tenth the level of the Pfizer vaccine and is also cheaper.

India will benefit from the Oxford vaccine, as the Pune-based Serum Institute of India gambled on it several months ago and can mass-manufacture for the country.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is based on mRNA technology. The company explained, “mRNA is a long, polymeric molecule, composed of four different building block called nucleotides. In mRNA, hundreds or thousands of these nucleotides are linked in a unique order to convey genetic information to cells, where it is used to express proteins with biological effects.”  

The Oxford vaccine, on the other hand, is based on ChAdOx1 technology, which has been used as candidates to combat the common flu, Zika and MERS. It is a chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector. The University claimed, “ChAdOx1 was chosen as the most suitable vaccine technology for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.”

Covid-19 is seen as the biggest pandemic after about 100 years of the deadly Spanish Flu that killed an estimated 50 million.  

From the end of 2019, when Covid cases were diagnosed in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the virus has spread across the globe. John Hopkins University of Medicine, which has been monitoring the infection, has put the global cases at nearly 7 million and a death toll of 1.48 million. The US tops the mortality list, followed by Brazil and India.

The United Kingdom has recorded almost 1.65 million positive tests and more than 59,000 deaths. However, transiting out of its membership of the European Union has enabled the UK’s MHRA to fast track an emergency approval.

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