The UK has become the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, paving the way for mass vaccination.
Britain’s medicines regulator, the MHRA, says the jab, which offers up to 95% protection against Covid-19 illness, is safe to be rolled out.
The first 800,000 doses will be available in the UK from next week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.
People should wait to be contacted by the NHS, he added.
Elderly people in care homes and care home staff are top of the priority list, followed by over-80s and health and care staff.
But because the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at -70C, the very first vaccinations are likely to take place at hospitals so care home residents may not be immunised until later.
The Pfizer/BioNTech jab is the fastest vaccine to go from concept to reality, taking only 10 months to follow the same steps that normally span 10 years.
The UK has already ordered 40 million doses of the free jab – enough to vaccinate 20 million people.
The doses will be rolled out as quickly as they can be made by Pfizer in Belgium, Mr Hancock said, with the first load next week and then “several millions” throughout December.
But the bulk of the rollout will be next year, he added. “2020 has been just awful and 2021 is going to be better,” said Mr Hancock.
“I’m confident now, with the news today, that from spring, from Easter onwards, things are going to be better. And we’re going to have a summer next year that everybody can enjoy.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson added: “It’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again.”
The vaccine will be non-compulsory and there will be three ways of vaccinating people across the UK:
- Vaccination centres “a bit like the Nightingales project and including some of the Nightingales”, said Mr Hancock
- In the community, with GPs and pharmacists.
Around 50 hospitals are on stand-by and vaccination centres – in venues such as conference centres or sports stadiums – are being set up now.
Because the initial doses are being delivered to hospitals, which already have the facilities to store the vaccine at -70C, the very first vaccinations are likely to take place at hospital hubs – for care home staff, NHS staff and patients – so none of the vaccine is wasted.
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said the health service was preparing for “the largest-scale vaccination campaign in our country’s history”.
But experts said people still need to remain vigilant and follow rules to stop the virus spreading – including with social distancing, face masks and self-isolation.
“We can’t lower our guard yet,” said the government’s chief medical adviser Prof Chris Whitty.
This is the news we have all been waiting for
This is the news we have all been waiting for.
The NHS has already been gearing up for this moment for some time. The venues are in place and there is provision for extra staffing, with even lifeguards and airline staff to be brought in to help with the effort.
But the biggest hurdle will be supply.
The UK has been promised 40 million doses by the spring – enough to give the required two jabs to health and care workers and everyone over 65. But in the first few weeks of winter, our ability to vaccinate could easily outstrip supply.
Ministers say they will have 800,000 doses in the country within days – with several million more to follow in weeks – but the original expectation that there could be 10 million doses by the end of the year is already looking ambitious.
Getting the jabs into the country remains a challenge. It is being made in Belgium. Could Brexit be an issue? The government is confident it has secure routes to ensure supply does not get disrupted.
Nonetheless, major hopes are still being pinned to authorisation being given to the Oxford University vaccine so that rollout can happen as quickly as possible in 2021.
The order in which people will get the jab is decided by the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations.
According to its new guidance, care home residents and staff are top of the list, followed by people over 80 and other health and social care workers.
Mass immunisation of everyone over 50, as well as younger people with pre-existing health conditions, can happen as more stocks become available in 2021.
The vaccine is given as two injections, 21 days apart, with the second dose being a booster. Immunity begins to kick in after the first dose but reaches its full effect seven days after the second dose.
Most of the side effects are very mild and usually last for a day or so, said Prof Sir Munir Pirmohamed, the chairman of the Commission on Human Medicine expert working group.
The vaccine was 95% effective for all groups in the trials, including elderly people, he said.
The head of the MHRA, Dr June Raine, said despite the speed of approval, no corners have been cut.
Batches of the vaccine will be tested in labs “so that every single vaccine that goes out meets the same high standards of safety”, she said.
Giving the analogy of climbing a mountain, she said: “If you’re climbing a mountain, you prepare and prepare. We started that in June. By the time the interim results became available on 10 November we were at base camp.
“And then when we got the final analysis we were ready for that last sprint that takes us to today.
The Pfizer/BioNTech was the first vaccine to publish positive early results from final stages of testing.
It is a new type called an mRNA vaccine that uses a tiny fragment of genetic code from the pandemic virus to teach the body how to fight Covid-19 and build immunity.
An mRNA vaccine has never been approved for use in humans before, although people have received them in clinical trials.
Because the vaccine must be stored at around -70C, it will be transported in special boxes, packed in dry ice. Once delivered, it can be kept for up to five days in a fridge.
There are some other promising vaccines that could also be approved soon.
One from Moderna uses the same mRNA approach as the Pfizer vaccine and offers similar protection. The UK has pre-ordered seven million doses that could be ready by the spring.
The UK has ordered 100 million doses of a different type of Covid vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca. That vaccine uses a harmless virus, altered to look a lot more like the virus that causes Covid-19.
Russia has been using another vaccine, called Sputnik, and the Chinese military has approved another one made by CanSino Biologics. Both work in a similar way to the Oxford vaccine.