U.K. Approves Pfizer Vaccine

11:40 minutes

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

This Wednesday, the United Kingdom announced approval for a COVID-19 vaccine through an emergency authorization, beating out the U.S. and most other countries. The vaccine is being produced by the U.S. pharma company Pfizer and German partner BioNTech. And the first U.K. vaccinations may start as early as next week. 

Nsikan Akpan of National Geographic talks about how this vaccine works and what it means for the vaccination schedule for the rest of the world.

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Segment Guests

Nsikan Akpan

Nsikan Akpan is Health and Science Editor for WNYC in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, an update on a busy week in space news and a conversation with naturalist Sir David Attenborough. But first, this Wednesday, the U.K. announced approval for a COVID-19 vaccine through an emergency authorization, beating out the U.S. and most other countries. The

Vaccine is being produced by the U.S. pharma company, Pfizer, and German partner, BioNTech, and the first U.K. vaccinations may start as early as next week. So what do we know about this vaccine? And what does it mean for the vaccination schedule for the rest of the world? Nsikan Akpan is here to fill us in. He’s science editor for National Geographic, based in Washington, D.C. Welcome back.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Hey, Ira. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Let’s talk about how the U.K. was able to quickly move through with this approval.

NSIKAN AKPAN: So the United Kingdom conducted what’s called a rolling review, which meant that they could look at Pfizer’s clinical trial data at the same time that they were checking the quality of the company’s manufacturing process. And so, typically, you would have one of those things come after the other. But by combining them and sort of doing them at overlapping time periods, they were able to really expedite the process. And it’s huge. I mean, it’s enormous that we’ve had an approval this fast.

IRA FLATOW: What do we know about the Pfizer vaccine and how it works?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Right, yeah, so this is such a historic milestone. Because not only do we have an approved COVID-19 vaccine in under a year, it’s a huge win for mRNA vaccines. So researchers have been seeking mRNA vaccines for human use since I was listening to Ace of Base cassette tapes, you know, and going to skate nights.

IRA FLATOW: Gee, that is a while ago.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, exactly. And go to skate nights at my roller rink. And yeah, I mean, it’s wild. You know, after 25 years of hunting, we might have not one but two mRNA vaccines in less than a year, if you include the candidate from Moderna.

Just on Thursday, Moderna released some data to the New England Journal of Medicine that showed that about three dozen people from one of its early trials still had a pretty robust immune response after three months. And now, the British media are reporting that Pfizer doses are going to arrive right now, as we’re speaking. And 800,000 doses could be in the country next week.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about what groups in the UK are being prioritized to receive the vaccine first.

NSIKAN AKPAN: The first batches, they’re going to go to what health regulators called residents in care homes— for older adults— and also to the health care personnel that work in those homes. Then, after that, they’re saying that it’ll go to people over the age of 80 and then frontline health care workers and social care workers. And then, from there, the priority list continues downward for vulnerable groups through age for, basically, anybody who’s over the age of 16.

IRA FLATOW: And there are reports of the vaccine is slowly trickling into the U.S.


IRA FLATOW: How is it going to be distributed here? It appears that each state will be making its own rules about distribution.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah. I mean, the CDC is going to give umbrella guidance for all of the states to follow. They’re going to recommend a vaccine for everyone, and that’s going to sort of dictate which vaccines will be covered by Medicare and also private health insurance.

But then, yes, states are probably going to have to go it alone in terms of acquiring doses of the vaccine. I’m sure that the CDC and some other U.S. health organizations, like the U.S. Health Department, will try to acquire some public doses, as well. But yes, states are really going to have to work on securing their own supplies.

IRA FLATOW: And when might we see the first doses coming to the U.S.?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, so National Geographic is actually running a story today on that very topic. It looks like the U.K.’s decision might mean that some countries fall behind in terms of being able to secure their vaccine supplies, and that would include the United States. So I spoke with a slew of vaccine experts this week that warned that the U.K.’s decision may now trigger a domino effect, where other countries start jockeying for approvals.

The competition will not only reduce access for poorer nations for months— potentially for years— but it will probably affect how richer countries like the United States, when they can receive their vaccine doses. This is happening because, in recent months, wealthier nations have pre-purchased just huge amounts of the vaccines that are being promised by the front-runner makers, so Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca.

Some research out of Duke University has shown that, of the 9.8 billion doses that vaccine makers have committed to make, three of every four have already been purchased. And more than half of those doses are dedicated to well-off countries because of these deals. At Duke University, the Global Health Innovation Center is tracking the scale of what I think can be called hoarding.

It’s pretty unbelievable. So the United States has already secured enough doses to vaccinate its population twice over. For the U.K., it’s thrice. And for Canada, our typically courteous cousins to the north, they could offer five full doses to all of its 38 million citizens and have some left over.

IRA FLATOW: So what does this mean for lower income countries who might not be able to bid on these vaccines?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, I mean, it’s going to be sort of tough for them. Because a lot of those countries are banking on this WHO show co-led program called COVAX which is an initiative that’s supposed to secure 20% of the vaccine needs for anybody who signs on to the program. And so 172 countries, including some wealthy nations, have signed on to COVAX to help fund the program. But the donations are coming in really slow.

So the COVAX program, actually, has only been able to secure about 10% of the available vaccine supply. And so somebody at Duke told me that it could be three to four years before the whole globe is able to reach herd immunity, meaning that every single little nook in the world has about 60% to 70% coverage with the vaccine.

And the thing is that if there’s cases anywhere, it could present potential threats everywhere. I mean, that’s something we’ve seen with measles. It’s something that we used to see with smallpox. I mean, it’s a really big deal. A Pfizer spokesperson told us that they fully support the COVAX program. But Duke University, their analysis showed that 95% of Pfizer’s already-committed supply has been purchased by high-income nations.

And because Britain has this early approval, they’re probably going to have first dibs at those batches, which are going to be coming out bit by bit as the manufacturing process ramps up. And there’s no guarantee at the moment that Pfizer is going to hold on to the vaccine to satisfy their other deals in sort of a fair and equitable way. They could just start giving out doses to the U.K. because it’s already approved.

And then, if they sort of run out of doses before the next batch is made, then it could affect even when the U.S. is able to get some of its doses. So I mean, it’s a huge issue. If people want to know more, they should go to our website, our coronavirus coverage website at National Geographic. Because the story is pretty wild.

IRA FLATOW: And how will the other vaccine companies help spread out the vaccine. For example, Moderna is right behind Pfizer, right, in getting FDA approval. Will that sort of ease the restrictions and the limitations?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah. So Moderna’s commitments are sort of in a similar place as Pfizer’s. Many of them are going to high-income nations. I mean, that could be because the supply chain infrastructure in those places. You know, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have to be kept in ultra-cold freezers just to begin with. And so countries with more resources are going to have more of those freezers. So maybe they’re just thinking, yeah, the logistics will be better for them.

Well, you’re seeing a couple that are sort of being promised to what’s typically described as the Global South, a lot of low-, middle-income nations. And so that’s the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. So about half of their supply is dedicated to high-income countries right now. But the rest would go to those lower-income countries.

Another thing that we’re kind of overlooking is that China is actually moving pretty fast with their vaccine development, as well. And they’ve made some commitments to lower-income countries, as well.

IRA FLATOW: OK, Nsikan, let’s move on to your next story. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve heard that the timeline for quarantining people possibly exposed to COVID-19 is 14 days. It’s always been two weeks. But now, the CDC has revised that guideline. Tell us about that.

NSIKAN AKPAN: The safest thing that anybody can do is quarantine for 14 days before they see anybody who’s high risk. But if you can’t do that, for whatever reason, they’re now telling people to quarantine for seven days, and if you’re not showing symptoms— and then also get tested. Because we know that the average person will show up on a PCR test for COVID-19 within five to six days. So we’re pretty sure that that’ll work for the average person.

But then, on top of that, their second recommendation is that, OK, if you don’t have access to testing— and this is the really important point— if you don’t have access to testing, wait 10 days. Really monitor your symptoms. And then, if you don’t have any, you can break quarantine without getting tested.

And the reason that they recommend that is because we know that 97% to 98% of people, if they’re going to show symptoms and if they’re going to test positive, are going to do so around day 10 or day 11. And I think the other thing that’s important to point out is that these recommendations are just for quarantine.

If you catch the virus, if you’re a confirmed case, your rules are completely different. And you have to isolate for a different schedule of time that. So people who are confirmed cases, the new quarantine guidelines weren’t for you. Part of the reason is that we know, according to the science, that if we do this, if we shorten the quarantines, that we won’t really lose anything in terms of preventing cases and community spread.

IRA FLATOW: Always good to have Nsikan reporting on stuff for us.

NSIKAN AKPAN: I appreciate it. Thank you. Nsikan Akpan is science editor for National Geographic, based in Washington.

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