(CN) — The United Kingdom approved the mass use of a new vaccine against the deadly coronavirus on Wednesday, becoming the first Western nation to do so and marking a hopeful turning point in the pandemic.
British regulators gave their blessing to a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, a German company, that is touted as highly effective and safe. Other vaccines that have undergone similar wide-scale testing are expected to win approval in the U.K. and elsewhere in the coming weeks.
The development of successful vaccines at record speed is a big moment with many scientists and politicians saying they are the best hope for ending the pandemic.
“It is the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get our economy moving again,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday, speaking in the House of Commons.
When the coronavirus was spreading from China to the rest of the world in February, it was unclear if vaccines could be concocted to fight the virus. There were fears the virus would quickly mutate and make it much harder to develop vaccines against it. But the virus has remained largely the same and now experts are confident vaccines can work.
“I really do believe this is the beginning of the end if we can roll this out,” said Jeffrey Almond, a professor of microbiology at the University of Oxford and an adviser to the U.K. government’s vaccine task force, on Sky News television. “It will allow us to return to normal, I am sure of that.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was developed from a relatively new RNA-based technique and poses logistical challenges to its distribution because it needs to be stored at extremely low temperatures. British officials said the first doses are expected to be rolled out next week to residents and workers in nursing homes. The U.K. has purchased 40 million doses, which is enough to vaccinate 20 million people because two jabs are needed.
The vaccine announcement can’t come soon enough for the U.K., a nation that’s been badly shaken by the pandemic and the turbulence caused by its departure from the European Union. The U.K. has reported Europe’s highest death toll from the pandemic with more than 59,000 fatalities linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. In addition, more than 1.6 million Brits have been infected.
Besides the health crisis, the U.K. is being battered by an economic recession caused by months of lockdowns and made more dire by the country’s pending withdrawal from the EU at the end of the year. British and European officials are negotiating a trade deal to limit the damage of the divorce, but so far no deal has been announced.
Britain isn’t the first nation to approve vaccines against the coronavirus for public use. In August, China and Russia licensed vaccines for mass use even though they had not been fully tested. Both countries have pushed ahead with mass vaccinations and clinical tests. They insist their vaccines are safe and effective and many nations around the world are interested in using them.
Still, the U.K.’s announcement signals a major turning point in the fight against the pandemic and marks the beginning of the widespread distribution of coronavirus vaccines in Europe, the United States and many other countries waiting for Western-made antidotes to come onto the market.
The U.S., the EU and other Western nations are expected to approve vaccines in the coming weeks. Besides the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, other vaccine candidates are likely to win approval from regulators. One candidate developed in the U.K. by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford is seen as a potential game-changer because it does not require ultra-cold temperatures, a major advantage in efforts to get vaccines distributed around the world.
The World Health Organization has not yet approved a vaccine for world distribution, but its experts say that could happen early next year. The United Nations health agency is working with rich nations to fund a worldwide vaccine distribution program. The hope is that the virus will no longer be a threat if enough people around the world become immune to it.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine stimulates an immune response in humans through a technique using RNA, a type of molecule found in human cells. In the case of the coronavirus, vaccine developers are targeting the coronavirus’ protein spikes that allow it to penetrate human cells.
This is the first time an RNA-based vaccine will be used at mass scale, though they have been tested on tens of thousands of people during clinical trials.
“These vaccines are remarkably low on side effects,” said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, on Sky News.
Openshaw dismissed concerns that RNA vaccines can have long-term side effects and even alter the DNA in human cells.
“RNA is a natural product that is present in all our cells; it’s designed to be degraded by our natural systems quite quickly. There’s nothing supernatural about this; it’s all science and immunology that has led to this development,” he said.
Almond said he expects people injected with the vaccine may build up immunity to the coronavirus for a long time, possibly for two years or more. He said the coronavirus has not mutated and that makes it more likely that people can build up long-term resistance.
“I don’t think we should be pessimistic,” he said. “I’m fairly confident there will be a good period of protection, a good couple of years.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.