Could Britons Get Their Hands on Pfizer Vaccine Before the U.S.?

Britain's health regulator has begun its formal appraisal of the 95 percent effective Pfizer and BionNTech COVID vaccine, with hospital staff across the U.K. told to be ready to administer it by the start of next month.

A government source quoted by The Telegraph said the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) could sign off on the vaccine in less than a week, under a "best-case scenario". National Health Service (NHS) staff have been told to prepare to administer doses for those most at risk from the virus by December 1, the newspaper reports.

This could mean people in the U.K. will be given the vaccine before their American counterparts, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not scheduled to meet until December 10 to discuss the jab.

The Department of Health and the MHRA could not comment to Newsweek when specifically the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination may be administered. Health Secretary Matt Hancock formally asked the regulator to assess the vaccine for use in the U.K. last week after Pfizer announced that it demonstrated an efficacy rate of 95 percent in the companies' phase 3 clinical study.

So far "next month" is as specific a commitment as Hancock has been willing to publicly make on the vaccine roll-out, telling a Downing Street news conference the NHS will be ready to start vaccinating people against coronavirus in December if it is approved by regulators.

The government said that deployment plans will depend on the decision by the regulator "but preparations have been underway for months" and the NHS "will be ready to begin vaccinating as soon as the first vaccine is approved and delivered".

The U.K. has ordered 40 million vaccine doses from Pfizer-BioNTech, which it expects to start receiving soon but will not receive in full until the end of 2021. This will be enough to vaccinate up to a third of the population by then. The vaccine will only be authorized for supply by the MHRA if it meets strict standards of quality, safety, and effectiveness, and if they are satisfied the vaccine can be consistently manufactured.

"Today marks the next step forward for the vaccine following the MHRA's confirmation that it has received the necessary data to progress their review into whether the vaccine meets the required standards," the Department of Health said. "Despite encouraging data about this vaccine, people must continue to follow public health advice to keep themselves and their loved ones safe; regularly washing their hands, wearing a face mask, and making space."

Hancock said "an enormous amount of work has taken place" to ensure the NHS has the logistics, transport, and workforce to administer the vaccine in the U.K. We must now allow the MHRA's renowned teams of scientists and clinicians to make an independent assessment of whether it meets their robust standards of quality, safety, and effectiveness. If approval is granted, the NHS will be ready to deliver," the health secretary said.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma called for patience from the public while the MHRA makes its assessment. "Finding a vaccine is not going to end the pandemic overnight, but we are hopeful of being one step closer to defeating this terrible virus," Sharma said.

It comes as a vaccine produced by the University of Oxford has been found to be up to 90 percent effective, following a large scale trial. Researchers said overall it is 70 percent effective, rising to 90 percent in a group of volunteers who were given an initial half dose, followed by a full dose.

The British government's Vaccines Taskforce has secured 100 million doses of the Oxford jab, produced with British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. Hancock said that the "bulk of the rollout" for the Oxford vaccine-should it be approved-will take place in the New Year.

The Oxford vaccine results follow that of Pfizer's and another by U.S. company Moderna, which was shown to be 94.5 percent effective. What may give Oxford's vaccine, codenamed AZD1222, an edge in the race is that it does not need to be stored at -70C, like Pfizer's, and it is a much cheaper option, with AstraZeneca developing it on a not-for-profit basis.

Flu vaccine in Italy during COVID
There are several frontrunners in the race to find an effective vaccine against COVID-19 Fabrizio Villa/Getty

Britain expects four million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered by the end of the year if it is approved by the medicines' regulator. AstraZeneca will also seek an Emergency Use Listing from the World Health Organisation, which will allow for an "accelerated pathway to vaccine availability in low-income countries".

The MHRA is assessing each vaccine through rolling reviews in order to speed up assessments. It means it reviews data as it becomes available from ongoing studies before a complete application is submitted.

A spokesperson for the MHRA tells Newsweek: "We will rigorously assess the data in the shortest time possible, without compromising the thoroughness of our review. The time taken to complete the rolling review depends on the complexity and the maturity of the data submitted and the number of rolling submissions to be made to us. This will be different for each vaccine and will also depend on the progress of clinical trials.

"Typically, developing a vaccine and generating data on safety, quality, and efficacy can take months to a number of years. Given the emergency situation of the current pandemic, the review processes for a vaccine will be prioritized and a company is able to send in information on a staggered basis.

"The total review time therefore should be quicker than usual. However, should the MHRA authorize the vaccine, the overall data will have been sufficient to conclude on its safety, quality, and efficacy, and the necessary robust requirements are not compromised."