On December 8, less than a month after the government approved the Pfizer vaccine, the first person in the UK received their first dose.
The Pfizer vaccine, along with several others now in production, has long been cited by government ministers as our main way out of the coronavirus pandemic and a chance to return to a more normal way of living, free of localised lockdowns in the future.
And now the end is in sight as on December 2, the UK government became the first in the world to approve the Pfizer and BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for widespread use. British regulator, MHRA, found that the vaccine was safe and soon after, elderly people in care homes, their carers and others started receiving the vaccine.
MHRA Chief Executive, Dr June Raine said upon the announcement, “We have carried out a rigorous scientific assessment of all the available evidence of quality, safety and effectiveness. The public’s safety has always been at the forefront of our minds – safety is our watchword.
“I’m really pleased to say that the UK is now one step closer to providing a safe and effective vaccine to help in the fight against COVID-19 – a virus that has affected each and every one of us in some way – and in helping to save lives.
“We are globally recognised for requiring high standards of safety, quality and effectiveness for any vaccine. Our expert scientists and clinicians worked tirelessly, around the clock, carefully, scientifically, robustly and rigorously poring over hundreds of pages and tables of data, methodically reviewing the data.
“Vaccines are the most effective way to prevent infectious diseases. They save millions of lives worldwide.”
The coronavirus vaccine trials around the world have already made history but the Pfizer vaccine has become the fastest ever to go from idea to the final product, as it took under a year to follow the stages of scientific development that normally last a decade.
Matt Hancock told BBC Breakfast in response to the good news, “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.”
Previously the health secretary said that the NHS was ready to start offering the new vaccine “as fast as safely as possible” to people in the UK but warned people that “even once we start to roll it out, we still need to look after ourselves, look after our community by following the rules and being careful to stop the spread of transmission.”
Although this means that lockdowns – the second of which England entered on November 5 – are not behind us just yet and circuit breaker lockdowns, along with tighter social distancing measures could be enforced in the New Year, it’s a hugely promising step forward in beating the virus. Especially as many have been looking at whether lockdown 2 worked in England, as discussions over the possibility of a January lockdown continue.
So where did the vaccine come from? Is it actually effective in preventing people from catching coronavirus? And importantly, who would receive the vaccine first?
These are all questions that people are asking following the news, as unlike the vaccines currently being produced by Oxford University (where volunteers have taken part in trials), this one was vaguely unheard of until recently.
Who made the Pfizer vaccine and in which country?
The Pfizer vaccine has been developed by an American corporation called Pfizer in New York and BioNTech, a German biotechnology company based in Mainz, Germany.
Pfizer is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world and over the years has been responsible for many of the essential medicines used by millions of people around the world. One of their most famous inventions is the EpiPen, which is used to treat allergic reactions, while anxiety sufferers might be familiar with Xanax, another of their medications.
However, BioNTech are the originators of the vaccine. Founded by two German scientists, the company normally develop cancer immunotherapies but during the pandemic, they have turned their attention to Covid-19.
How long does the Pfizer vaccine last?
At the moment, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how long immunity from the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine would last. As they only started to administer the second dosages four months ago, it’s thought that we’ll have this information in the coming months. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) has already said that a vaccine with an immunity of just six months would be acceptable at the moment, especially as other vaccines are also being created.
In the worst case scenario, people will need boosters of the vaccine every year much like the flu vaccine but in the best case scenario, as suggested by chief executive of BioNTech, Uğur Şahin, immunity with the Pfizer vaccine would last months or years.
How effective is the Pfizer vaccine?
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine has been reported as 95% effective in the latest phase three trials, meaning that it prevented more than 9 out of 10 people from contracting the virus. This included efficiency across all age, gender, race and different ethnicity demographics, with adults over the age of 65 protected by over 94%.
The trial involved three phases and 43,538 people from six different countries. Each received two doses of either the vaccine or the placebo, with 90% of people protected from the virus within less than a month of having their jabs.
Out of more than 40,000 people who took part in the study, only 94 contracted coronavirus and as no serious safety concerns were reported, the vaccine is expected to be fast-tracked to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use.
However, a study and substantial reports won’t be confirmed until 164 people have contracted the virus to get a better understanding of how the vaccine works.
Dr Albert Bourla, Pfizer chairman and chief executive, has said in a statement that the success of the vaccine is immensely promising for both science and humanity: “The first set of results from our phase 3 Covid-19 vaccine trials provides the initial evidence of our vaccine’s ability to prevent Covid-19.”
“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development programme at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen.”
Other scientists such as John Bell, Regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, who is also involved with the Oxford coronavirus vaccine told the BBC that the Pfizer scientists had shown “an amazing level of efficacy” and he was hopeful that normality could return by spring.
“I’m the first guy to say that,” He said, “But I will say it with some confidence.”
As coronavirus is worse than the flu, the hope is that a vaccine will prevent the double threat of flu and Covid-19 in the years to come.
Who would be a priority for the Covid-19 vaccine in the UK?
Age is the biggest risk factor for Covid 19, so it’s likely that older people, those in care homes and their carers, will be the first priority for receiving the vaccine.
A prioritisation list published by the government confirms this as “older adults’ resident in a care home and care home workers” are first on the list, followed by “all those 80 years of age and over and health and social care workers”. After that the priority list works in this order…
- All those 75 years of age and over
- All those 70 years of age and over
- All those 65 years of age and over
- High-risk adults under 65 years of age
- Moderate-risk adults under 65 years of age
- All those 60 years of age and over
- All those 55 years of age and over
- All those 50 years of age and over
- Rest of the population (priority to be determined)
Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed the government’s readiness to give people the vaccine as he told BBC Breakfast, “The NHS is ready, we’re prepared, I’ve put in the extra £150m today, the GPs and ready, we’re working with the pharmacists, the hospitals are going to play a very important role,”
It’s thought that much like the flu jab, the coronavirus vaccine will be delivered through care homes, GPs and pharmacists but also through specialised vaccination centres. However, in a press conference led by the Prime Minister on November 9, experts urged caution in getting too excited about the new vaccine just yet – due to the logistical hurdles that are still yet to be overcome with rolling out the vaccine.
The prime minister has warned time and time again that the biggest mistake the UK could make now would be to scale back on the restrictions, especially as the lockdown has come to an end now, as the country is in such a “critical moment” for fighting the virus.
He said earlier in November, “The death figures are tragically rising, running at an average of over 300 a day – sadly double where they were 24 days ago. The number of Covid patients in hospital has risen from just over 10,000 two weeks ago to nearly 13,000 on 5 November, and we are heading towards the levels of the previous peak.”
On December 1, according to NHS figures, this number had increased to 13,507 and 1,182 people with confirmed Covid-19 were on ventilation.
“Irrespective of whether there is a vaccine on the way or not, we must continue to do everything possible right now to bring the R down.” The prime minister added.
Would children be offered the Pfizer vaccine?
For now it looks as though that children under the age of 16 will not receive the vaccine unless they are extremely vulnerable due to other conditions. This is because children are at risk of catching the virus, but the symptoms of coronavirus in children are famously less severe and damaging than in adults.
It will be delivered to all those more vulnerable due to age and other factors first.
Are there any side effects of the vaccine?
The vaccine has been considered safe by the regulatory body in the UK but Pfizer did report two very minor side effects in their final study phase. According to their most recent data, 3.8% of participants in the trials experienced fatigue and 2% had a headache but these only lasted a day or so.
Some people who took part in the study in the US reported another one which was feeling like they were severely hungover, which naturally, has symptoms of the side effects reported by Pfizer.
Although each participant didn’t know whether they were given the placebo or the vaccine, some participants reportedly said they were able to tell they had been given the vaccine due to minor side effects like headaches or muscle aches. Press Association reported that one 44-year- old participant, Glenn Deshields from Texas, said that his side effects were like a “severe hangover” but they cleared up quickly. After he took an test that revealed antibodies for the virus, Deshields came to the conclusion that he had been given the vaccine.
It was also reported that a woman from Missouri experienced a fever, headache and body aches after she received her first injection, with supposedly worse side effects upon the second injection. However, it’s not been made clear whether the 45-year-old woman named only as Carrie had received the vaccine or the placebo.
These side effects, however, are sometimes similar to those experienced by the unlucky few who have a bad reaction to the flu vaccine – or other life-saving vaccines. They can’t be taken as essential evidence that the coronavirus vaccine causes negative side effects, as both participants who reported these symptoms were of similar age and there are still questions over how the Pfizer vaccine affects different age groups and ethnicities.
The Pfizer vaccine and allergic reactions
After two NHS workers had serious allergic reactions to the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, the UK regulator has issued a general warning to those with a long-term history of allergies against having the jab.
The two staff members are thought to have suffered from an anaphylactoid reaction with symptoms including a skin rash, breathlessness and a drop in blood pressure. It’s very different from the potentially fatal anaphylaxis allergic reaction so the warning simply serves as a precaution.
The advice applies to those who have had reactions to medicines, food or vaccines in the past, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has said.
“As is common with new vaccines, the MHRA have advised on a precautionary basis that people with a significant history of allergic reactions do not receive this vaccination after two people with a history of significant allergic reactions responded adversely,” Professor Stephen Powis, medical director for the NHS in England, said.
But NHS GP Dr Ellie Cannon told BBC Radio London that side effects aren’t all that common, despite what we’re hearing at the moment, and those administering the vaccine are more than equipped to deal with any allergic reactions. “We always check before we give people vaccination.” Dr Cannon said, “It’s a rare side effect and it’s unfortunate that it’s happened in the last couple of days.”
“Talk to your GP about it or talk to the practice nurse, whoever is doing the vaccination in the hospital. We’re quite used to this because we have this every year with the flu vaccination and with other vaccinations. So we are used to it and we will decide whether or not your level of allergy is enough that you can’t have the vaccination.”
“I would personally advise my patients to go [and have the vaccine] because it’s only patients with the most severe allergies that wouldn’t have it and if you do want to have the vaccination…we do give vaccinations to people with allergies and we do it in a safe hospital environment and we do that every year, so I would go to your appointment if called.”
“This will affect very few people. It doesn’t feel like that now because obviously we’ve had these two cases but from what the MHRA has published, it should only affect very few people.”
Immunology expert, Prof Peter Openshaw, from Imperial College London has also said, “The fact that we know so soon about these two allergic reactions and that the regulator has acted on this to issue precautionary advice shows that this monitoring system is working well.”
What is the population of England and how many Pfizer Covid vaccines has the government bought?
As of 2018, there were 55.98 million people living in England alone and the government has currently bought 40 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine from Pfizer, but because each person needs two doses of the jab for full vaccination, we currently have enough to vaccinate 20 million people.
This might only be just under a third of the population but it’s a start. The Pfizer vaccine is also just one of the several currently in production, including the Oxford University with AstraZeneca plc vaccine, which was proven to be highly effective in protecting people against Covid-19 in the final phase three of the trial back in November.
If it’s deemed safe and effective by the regulatory body then the Oxford vaccine will join the 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and the 2million secured doses of the Moderna jab in creating a vaccination programme for the UK.
Which countries have approved the Pfizer vaccine?
The UK was the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine for effective and immediate use, shortly followed by Bahrain. But the country hasn’t issued a statement to the media so far on how many doses they’ve secured or when their vaccination programme will begin.
The US, thought to be one of the first countries set on rolling out the vaccine due to their record-high levels of coronavirus, has had to wait longer for their approval as the Food and Drug Administration is still waiting on some data.
Other countries set to approve the Pfizer vaccine in the coming months are those in Asia and Australia, but officials have confirmed that they won’t be rushing into anything. Head of the Australian regulator, Professor John Skeritt told ABC that Australia was on a different timeline to the UK and the US and wouldn’t be pressured to approve the vaccine earlier than January 2021.
Speaking to the news site, he said this was because the UK and the US are in a different situation with coronavirus. “They’re not approvals that those two countries are talking about, they’re emergency use authorisations, and they’re really reflecting the desperate situation of those countries,” he said. “We have to remember on many days, day after day the US is having more deaths than we’ve had in the whole year of the pandemic here in Australia.”
While professor of infectious diseases at the National University of Singapore, Dale Fisher, said that countries who had the virus under control didn’t have to issue emergency authorisations and were able to learn lessons from the rest of the world, such as how long immunity lasts with the Pfizer vaccine.
He said, “I wouldn’t say they [the UK, US and Europe] are a test case – they may be used as a test case but that’s not out of design, it’s out of desperation. These countries need a vaccine more urgently,”
“I would never have believed that these countries, among the most developed in the world, would be the ones that are the most needy. But that’s the truth.”