Wednesday, 20 Jan 2021

COVID vaccine: Boris Johnson says Britain beating western world to approve jab ‘fantastic’

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But as the UK go-ahead was greeted with widespread delight here, European health chiefs could only rubbish the historic achievement. Ministers insisted the UK’s medicines watchdog was able to swiftly approve the jab developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, ahead of EU nations, as Brexit had freed us from Brussels red tape. The European Medicines Agency and some ministers on the continent suggested that Britain had put speed above winning public confidence. But on a day of soaring optimism in the battle against the pandemic, an emotional Prime Minister admitted he was “lost in admiration” for ­the scientists who had developed ­the life-saving jab. “This is a huge moment and it’s also a moving thing,” he said, promising the breakthrough will allow the ­country to “reclaim our lives”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Brexit meant the UK was freed from EU medicine rules that would have delayed approval in this country.

He said: “Whilst until earlier this year we were in the European Medicines Agency because of Brexit we’ve been able to make a decision to do this based on the UK regulator, a world-class regulator, and not go at the pace of the Europeans, who are moving a little bit more slowly.

“We do all the same safety checks and the same processes, but we have been able to speed up how they’re done because of Brexit.”

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “We could only approve this vaccine so quickly because we have left the EU. Last month we changed the regulations so a vaccine did not need EU approval, which is slower.”

But in an unusually blunt ­statement, the European Medicines Agency said its longer approval procedure was more appropriate as it was based on more evidence and required more checks than the emergency procedure chosen by Britain.

It claimed its own procedure included “essential elements to ensure a high level of protection to citizens during the course of a mass vaccination campaign”.

A spokesman for the European Commission said it was “the most effective regulatory mechanism to grant all EU citizens access to a safe and effective vaccine”.

Other figures from EU nations were even more sceptical about the British announcement.

German health minister Jens Spahn said: “The idea is not that we’re the first, but the idea is to have safe and effective vaccines in the pandemic and that we can create confidence.

“Nothing is more important than confidence with respect to vaccines.

“We have member states, including Germany, who could have issued such an emergency authorisation if we’d wanted to. But we decided against this and what we opted for was a common European approach to move forward together.”

Peter Liese, an MEP ­and ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, called into question Britain’s move.

He said: “I consider this decision to be problematic and recommend that EU member states do not repeat the process in the same way.

“A few weeks of thorough examination by the European Medicines Agency is better than a hasty emergency marketing authorisation of a vaccine.”

At 7am yesterday, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency declared the jab, which offers up to 95 percent protection against Covid-19, to be safe to roll out across the UK.

Troops are ready to help deliver supplies from an initial stockpile of 800,000 doses, with a total of 40 million on order.

Front-line NHS staff are expected to start receiving the first injections next week with people in other priority groups, including care home residents and the most elderly and vulnerable, to follow.

Celebrating the momentous breakthrough at a Downing Street news conference yesterday, the Prime Minister said: “It is a fantastic moment.”

“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 – and together reclaim our lives ­and all the things about our lives that we love.

“So I want to thank the scientists and all those around the world who have taken part in the trials and got us to this stage.”

Mr Johnson cautioned that there were “immense logistical challenges ahead” in rolling out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which must be stored at -70C. People will need two jabs three weeks apart to gain immunity.

The Prime Minister added: “It will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected.”

And he warned that the approval of the vaccine did not mean the country could “relax our guard” in curbing the spread of the virus.

“The worst thing now would be to think that this is the moment that we can relax our guard and think that it’s game over in the fight against Covid. This is not over,” he said.

Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, criticised those who were predicting the Government effort to roll out the vaccine was in danger of “failing”.

At the news conference, he told one reporter: “I think your remarks about failure are extremely unfair when one considers that a new virus emerged less than 12 months ago and we already have our first vaccine. As soon as it is legally and technically possible to get the vaccine into care homes we will do so.

“But this is a complex product with a very fragile cold chain. It’s not a yogurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in multiple times, it’s really tricky to handle. We’ll get there as fast as we can and we are trying extremely hard.”

Prof Van-Tam also warned: “I don’t think we are going to eradicate coronavirus ever.

“I think it’s going to be with humankind forever. I think we may get to a point where coronavirus becomes a ­seasonal problem.

“I don’t want to draw too many parallels with ’flu but, possibly, that is the kind of way we would learn to live with it.”

June Raine, head of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, yesterday insisted the watchdog worked to the same global medical standards, including the EU.

She said: “Our progress has ­been totally dependent on the availability of data in our rolling review and our rigorous assessment and independent advice we have received.”

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