Game not over in Covid-19 fight, warns UK PM
Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to strike a note of caution amid the excitement of the UK becoming the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against Covid-19, warning that it is not “game over” for the deadly virus just yet.
Johnson hailed the “searchlights of science” fighting back against the world’s “invisible enemy” but urged people to not get carried away with over optimism over the course of the “long and cold months” ahead while the two-dose vaccine starts to be injected into the arms of those at the highest risk of death from the disease. He urged people to follow the Covid Winter Plan of tiered lockdown which is now in force across England, with a majority of areas still under high alert measures of social distancing.
“It is a fantastic moment, but the worst thing now would be to think that this is the moment when we can relax our guard and think it’s game over in the fight against Covid. It’s not. This is not the end,” Johnson said, during a briefing at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday evening.
“We have been waiting and hoping for the day when the searchlights of science would pick out our invisible enemy and give us the power to stop that enemy from making us ill – and now the scientists have done it,” he said. “It is all the more vital that as we celebrate this scientific achievement we are not carried away with over optimism, or fall into the naïve belief that the struggle is over. It’s not, we’ve got to stick to our Winter Plan,” he noted.
The UK PM confirmed that in line with the advice of the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the first phase of the vaccine deployment will include care home residents, health and care staff, the elderly and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
“But there are immense logistical challenges: the vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees and each person needs two injections, three weeks apart. So it will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected,” he said.
“[But] we are no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year in the spring, but rather on the sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed,” he added.
His address came hours after the UK government confirmed that it has accepted the independent Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) assessment and authorised the use of Pfizer/BioNTech to immunise against Covid-19. Now, authorisation has been granted, Pfizer will begin delivery of the vaccine to the UK. In making the recommendation to authorise supply, the MHRA will decide what additional quality assurance checks may be required before a vaccine can be made available.
The UK claims to be the first country to pre-order supplies of the vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech, with 800,000 doses being made available next week and 40 million doses ordered overall – enough to vaccinate up to a third of the population, and the majority of doses anticipated in the first half of next year.
“As a nation, we owe every scientist, clinician and trial volunteer an enormous debt of gratitude for their victory won against odds that at times seemed impossible. It is thanks to their efforts, and of our Vaccine Taskforce, that the UK was the first country to sign a deal with Pfizer/BioNTech and will now be the first to deploy their vaccine,” said UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma.
The MHRA started the rolling review of Pfizer/BioNTech’s data in October and the UK government asked the regulator to assess the vaccine for its suitability for authorisation under Regulation 174 of the Human Medicines Regulations, enabling the temporary supply of medicines to be authorised. The regulator has stressed that a speedy timeline does not mean any “corners have been cut” and the vaccine was declared safe for human use only after very rigorous checks.
“This vaccine has now passed all of the extensive checks needed for authorisation to supply and will soon be ready to be delivered to the NHS,” said Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England.
The state-funded National Health Service (NHS) for England said deployment plans will include hospital hubs for NHS and care staff and older patients to get vaccinated; local community services with local teams and General Practitioners already signing up to take part in the programme; and vaccination centres across the country, ensuring people can access a vaccine regardless of where they live.
“This is a momentous occasion and provides fresh hope that we can beat this pandemic, with the UK at the forefront of this revolutionary breakthrough,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
The vaccine will be available for free across the UK, with the government working with the devolved administrations to ensure it is deployed fairly across all four nations – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There has been some social media buzz around warning people against so-called “vaccine tourism” as only UK nationals and residents who qualify as high risk will have access to the vaccine at this stage.