The U.K. has become the first western country to license a Covid-19 vaccine, opening up mass immunization campaigns starting next week ahead of similar decisions in the U.S. and European Union.
The U.K. regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, said on Wednesday that the vaccine “met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness.” The shot will be available in Britain from next week.
“This is going to be one of the biggest civilian projects in history,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a radio interview, with 50 hospitals preparing to administer the vaccine and 800,000 doses ready to be delivered from Belgium.
As one of the worst hit nations by the pandemic, the U.K. had signaled its intention to move swiftly in approving a vaccine, and doctors and health workers had been put on standby for possible rollout.
The vaccine may offer relief for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government after eight months of criticism over his pandemic strategy as Britain’s death toll nears 60,000.
“We can see the way out, and we can see that by the spring we are going to be through this,” Hancock said on Sky News.
BioNTech is awaiting a decision from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the middle of December, the same time horizon in which it expects a ruling from European Union regulators, Chief Medical Officer Ozlem Tureci said in a press conference.
The German company and its U.S. partner, Pfizer, earlier this week sought regulatory clearance in the EU, while an FDA panel is set to meet on December 10 to discuss the vaccine.
China has given authorization to its three front-runners for emergency use. Russia cleared a vaccine known as Sputnik V in August, while a second inoculation was approved in October, even as the last stage of trials to establish safety and efficacy are still taking place.
A successful deployment of a vaccine, along with possible stabilization in U.S.-China trade ties, will help the global economy accelerate 4.9% in 2021 after shrinking about 4% this year, according to Bloomberg Economics.
The U.K. has agreed to buy more than 350 million doses of Covid-19 shots. The country has also ordered enough doses of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to inoculate 20 million people, less than one-third of the population.
While the companies have said they can produce 1.3 billion doses next year, much of that supply is already spoken for in deals to ship hundreds of millions of shots to Europe, the U.S., Japan, and elsewhere.