Scientists who gave the go-ahead to the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine have said “no corners were cut” in testing it for the market and it has met rigorous international safety standards.
It was announced this morning that the vaccine is 95% effective and 800,000 doses will be available in the UK from next week.
It is a two-dose process, with shots given 21 days apart, and seven days after the second injection a person achieves full immunity.
Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), told a live television press conference that time had been of the essence, a rolling review of the data had been carried out, but “that doesn’t mean any corners have been cut.”
She said: “This vaccine produced and developed by Pfizer/BioNTech meets rigorous high standards of safety, effectiveness and of quality. The public’s safety has always been at the forefront of our minds. Safety has been our watchword and it will always continue to be so.”
The vaccine will be given out according to health need and not determined by which Tier someone lives in. Nor will it be compulsory for a health worker to take the vaccine though they have prioritisation, according to Prof Wei Shen Lim, the chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
Residents in care homes and their carers will be the first people to get the vaccine in the first phase of delivery. The second group will be those over 80 and over, frontline health and social care workers. Then all of those age over 75, all of those over 70 years of age and over and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
The fifth group is 65 and over, the sixth group is 16 to 64 year olds with underlying conditions, followed by those aged 60 and over, 55 and over and 50 and over.
Asked during the press conference how the MHRA had been able to authorise the vaccine quicker than European Medicines Agency, Dr Raine said: "The MHRA is equivalent to all international standards."
She explained her scientific colleagues worked day and night, and at weekends during the testing and review process.
The extremely low temperature the vaccine must be stored at – minus 70C – was also raised in the press conference with questions remaining on exactly how it will be deployed.
Prof Lim said there are stability issues that could “constrain how a vaccine can be supplied to different people.”
However he said an unprecedented mass vaccination programme will be rolled out soon which will be very flexible.
Prof Sir Munir Pirmohamed, chair of Commission on Human Medicine Expert Working Group, said once the vaccine is taken out of a freezer it is still stable between two and eight degrees celcius so it can be used at vaccination sites.
He said the NHS has the data to try and organise a deployment model.
Health secretary Matt Hancock welcomed the approval, tweeting: "Help is on the way. The NHS stands ready to start vaccinating next week."
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Hancock said that 800,000 doses of the vaccine will arrive in the UK next week, adding: "This is fantastic news. The MHRA, the fiercely independent regulator, has clinically authorised the vaccine for rollout. The NHS stands ready to make that happen.
"So, from early next week we will start the programme of vaccinating people against Covid-19 here in this country."
The cabinet minister said the first vaccinations would begin in hospitals around the country which are already equipped to handle the vaccine, but that vaccination centres and community rollout would also be ramped up ahead of a mass programme.
"The first is hospitals themselves, which of course we’ve got facilities like this – 50 hospitals across the country are already set up and waiting to receive the vaccine as soon as it’s approved, so that can now happen," he told Sky News.
"Also vaccination centres, which will be big centres where people can go to get vaccinated. They are being set up now.
"There will also be a community rollout, including GPs and pharmacists. Now, of course, because of the -70C storage conditions of this vaccine, they will be able to support this rollout where they have those facilities.
"But they’ll also be there should the AstraZeneca vaccine be approved because that doesn’t have these cold storage requirements and so is operationally easier to roll out."
And he admitted the requirements for the vaccine to be stored at an ultra-low temperature would make it a "challenging rollout".
"This is a challenging rollout and the NHS in all parts of the UK stands ready to make that happen. They are used to handling vaccines and medicines like this, with these sorts of conditions," he added.
"It’s not easy but we’ve got those plans in place, so this morning I spoke to my counterparts in the devolved nations to make sure that we are all ready to roll out this vaccine … from early next week."
Kate Proctor and John Johnston report for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.