The Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine has been approved for widespread use in the UK.
British regulator, the MHRA, says the jab, which offers up to 95% protection against Covid-19 illness, is safe to start being used from next week.
What is the new vaccine and how effective is it?
The vaccine trains the immune system to fight coronavirus.
It is a new type of jab called an RNA vaccine and uses a tiny fragment of the virus’s genetic code. This starts making part of the virus inside the body, which the immune system recognises as foreign and starts to attack.
It is given in two doses – three weeks apart – and early data suggests it protects more than 90% of people from developing Covid symptoms.
Has this type of vaccine ever been used before?
This is the first RNA vaccine to be approved for use in humans.
The concept has been researched before and people have been given them in clinical trials for other diseases.
The vaccine will be considered by regulatory agencies around the world, who will decide whether the jab can be approved for use.
Who will get it first and how soon can I have it?
It depends how old you are, as age is the biggest risk factor for severe Covid-19.
In the UK, older care home residents and care home staff are top of the preliminary priority list. They are followed by health workers such as hospital staff and the over-80s.
People are then ranked by age, with those under 50 at the bottom of the list.
The first jabs may take place within days now approval has been given.
The vaccine will be delivered through care homes, GPs and pharmacists as well as “go-to” vaccination centres set up in venues like sports halls.
However, there are logistical challenges to overcome:
- It must be kept at -70C during transportation
- The jab must be thawed before it is given to a patient
- It can be stored in a normal fridge for a few days before being used
Will it offer lasting protection?
It is impossible to know and we will find out only by waiting.
If immunity does not last then it may be necessary to have annual vaccines, as we do for flu.
The vaccine appears to protect 94% of adults over 65 years old and data from its phase three trial suggests it works equally well in people of all ages and ethnicities.
Some people – such as those with a weak immune system – will not be able to have the vaccine.
Could the vaccine have long-term health effects?
Nothing in medicine is 100% safe – even something we take without thinking, like paracetamol, poses risks.
The data so far is reassuring – trials on 43,500 people discovered no safety concerns, although mild side effects have been reported.
If there were highly dangerous and common consequences of this vaccination, they should have become apparent.
However, rarer side effects may emerge as millions of people are immunised.
Will it mean we don’t need lockdown?
Hopefully yes, but not for some time.
If enough people are immune then the virus would stop spreading and we would not need other measures.
However, the manufacture and distribution of a vaccine will take some time.
So, testing, lockdowns, social distancing, and mask wearing are going to be a feature of our lives for a while yet.
Why can it only be made by Pfizer?
The vaccine has been designed and developed by Pfizer and BioNtech, and they own the intellectual property.
They already have the manufacturing capacity to produce 1.3 billion doses by the end of next year, but could partner with others to increase capacity even further.
What do we still need to know about the vaccine?
The announcement gave us the headline, but there is a still lack of fine detail.
We do not know if the vaccine stops you catching and spreading the virus or just stops you from getting ill. We also don’t know how protective the vaccine is in different age groups.
These will be crucial for understanding how it will be used.
What does this mean for other vaccines?
It is good news – it shows that a coronavirus vaccine is possible,.
About a dozen vaccines are in the final development stages and those produced by Oxford University/AstraZeneca and Moderna have also proved successful in trials. The UK has ordered supplies of both.