As coronavirus soars, US cheers Britain’s vaccine approval

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US health experts on Wednesday welcomed British emergency approval of Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine, a sign that US regulators may soon follow suit in a bid to bring the surging pandemic under control.

As US coronavirus hospitalisations jumped to their highest since the onset of the global pandemic, Britain gave emergency use approval to the vaccine developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE, the first country to do so.

Britain said it would start inoculating high-risk people early next week, a move that could make Americans more confident about the prospect of an expected mass vaccination campaign reminiscent of the anti-polio campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s.

“This should be very reassuring. An independent regulatory authority in another country has found this vaccine to be safe and effective for use,” US Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox Business Network on Wednesday.

US COVID-19 hospitalisations hit a record for a fourth consecutive day on Tuesday, approaching 100 000, according to a Reuters tally. At the same time, exhausted healthcare professionals are short-staffed, with many of their colleagues falling sick.

Another 2 624 US deaths were reported on Tuesday, the fifth-highest daily total on record, raising the cumulative death toll above 270 000 since the pandemic began. At least four states – Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota and Oklahoma – reported a record increase in deaths on Wednesday.

Although China and Russia also have moved ahead with inoculation campaigns with their own vaccines, Britain’s medical standards more closely align with those of the United States.

“It’s got major significance being that it’s the first Western country to approve the vaccine for a roll-out and start administering it to the public,” said Kirsten Hokeness, an immunology and virology expert and chair of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

“It’s going to put a little pressure on us to rapidly evaluate the data,” Hokeness said.

A US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel of outside advisers will meet on Dec. 10 to discuss whether to recommend emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine. Moderna’s vaccine, which employs similar technology as Pfizer’s and was also nearly 95% effective in preventing illness in a pivotal clinical trial, is expected to be reviewed a week later.

Of particular interest is how Britain manages the Pfizer vaccine’s requirement to be stored at minus-70 degrees Celsius. Moderna’s can be kept at more normal refrigerator temperatures.

But the British experience is unlikely to factor into US regulatory approval, which instead will focus on the clinical trial data.

While some US health officials described a timeline that assumed FDA authorisation would come within days of the December 10 meeting, others have said it could take weeks.

“Surely we want a vaccine available as soon as it is deemed safe. We want to make sure that we can provide accurate information to the public,” said Dr. Lisa Costello, a professor of pediatrics at the West Virginia University School of Medicine who is helping advise West Virginia’s state government on vaccine distribution.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam expressed confidence in the safety of the vaccines at a news conference on Wednesday.

“As a doctor, I am confident that all protocols have been followed and no corners have been cut,” he said.

Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca Plc have already started manufacturing their vaccines and say distribution could begin almost immediately after approval. AstraZeneca, however, may have to conduct an additional trial to gain US approval after a dosing error led to better results in recently released data than for its planned regimen.

Moderna, which has millions of doses ready to be shipped, expects its vaccine could be approved for emergency use within 24 to 72 hours after the FDA advisory committee meeting on December 17, Chief Executive Stéphane Bancel said on Wednesday.

Beyond regulatory hurdles, vaccinations face opposition from significant numbers of Americans who reject medical science and fear vaccines as harmful.

Similarly, many Americans still refuse to follow basic public health guidance on wearing masks and avoiding crowds, even as the pandemic killed 10,000 people and infected 1.1 million last week alone in the United States.

“A vaccine will be the single most important tool we have to fight COVID, but it’s not going to turn things around overnight,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote on Twitter.

“We must do much better at knocking the virus down with nuanced, well-timed closures and measures such as rapid testing, isolation, and contact tracing.”

In hopes of increasing compliance, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Wednesday added new guidelines for shorter quarantines after coronavirus exposure.

The health agency said seven days with a negative COVID-19 test and 10 days without a test would work for individuals showing no symptoms after exposure to the virus. But it still recommends a 14-day quarantine period as the best way to reduce its spread.