Britain on Wednesday became the first country in the world to approve a coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca as it fights a major winter boom driven by a new, highly contagious variant of the virus.
The UK has already ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine, and the government said it had accepted the recommendation from the Medicines and Health Care Products (MHRA) to grant emergency care.
The approval is a justification for a shot that is considered important for mass immunizations in developing countries as well as in the UK, but one that has been touched by questions about its trial data that make it unlikely that it will be approved very soon in the European Union or the United States.
“The NHS (National Health Service) will be able to deliver these shots into human arms at the speed at which it can be manufactured,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News.
“I am also now, with this approval this morning, very convinced that we can get enough vulnerable people vaccinated by the spring so that we can now see our way out of this pandemic.”
He said hundreds of thousands of doses would be available to administer in the UK next week.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the approval a “triumph of British science”.
The vaccine has been shown to be less effective than that developed by Pfizer in the US and BioNTech in Germany, but crucial for countries with more basic health infrastructure, can be stored and transported under normal cooling rather than at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 Fahrenheit).
AstraZeneca said the condition was for a two-dose regimen, and Hancock said the MHRA would provide more dosing information later on Wednesday.
AstraZeneca’s CEO, Pascal Soriot, says the vaccine “has proven to be effective, tolerated, easy to administer and provided by AstraZeneca without profit”.
He also told BBC radio: “Our belief at this point is that this vaccine should be effective against the (new, more contagious) variant.”
AstraZeneca’s recent studies showed 62% for participants receiving two full doses at several-week intervals – above the 50% usually considered adequate by regulators – but 90% for a smaller subgroup given half a dose and then a full dose.
AstraZeneca did not specify which dosing regimen had been approved, but researchers said that approval was the most important thing.
“To get out of this debate, there is no alternative to having a significant majority of the population carrying a high level of neutralizing antibodies. With today’s announcement, we’re within our grasp,” said Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunology at Imperial College London.
“I suspect this will accelerate things by several months. An immune population by spring is starting to look like that.”
The pandemic has already killed 1.7 million people around the world, wreaking havoc on the global economy and increasing billions in normal life since it began in Wuhan, China, a year ago.
In particular, the United Kingdom and South Africa are struggling with new variants of coronavirus, which the government and researchers say are more contagious. Many countries have responded by banning passenger flights and blocking trade.