Q&A: Britain's OK of COVID-19 vaccine sparks speedy debate

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People eat outside in Covent Garden market, as non-essential shops are allowed to reopen after England's second lockdown ended in London, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Pfizer and BioNTech say they've won permission Wednesday for emergency use of their COVID-19 vaccine in Britain, the world's first coronavirus shot that's backed by rigorous science -- and a major step toward eventually ending the pandemic.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

LONDON – Britain’s announcement that it has become the first Western country to authorize the use of a COVID-19 vaccine has sparked debate about whether officials emphasized speed over safety.

The U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency gave temporary authorization for people to receive a vaccine produced by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and German company BioNTech. The agency made the decision under rules allowing regulators to sign off on medicines more quickly during public health emergencies.

The move made the United Kingdom the world's first country to OK a rigorously tested COVID-19 vaccine. The British public is now seeking more information about the vaccine and the immunization timetable as authorities try to find an equitable way to distribute the limited number of doses that initially will be available.


Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said vaccinations would begin “within days.” The exact date the shots start will depend on how fast regulators can complete safety checks that must be done on each batch.

A panel of independent experts that advises the British government, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, has set out priorities for vaccinating the most vulnerable people first. The highest priority goes to older people living in nursing homes and their caregivers, but logistical difficulties in shipping smaller quantities of vaccine to reach a limited demographic group might cause a delay to this group.

People over age 80 and healthcare workers have the second-highest priority. From there, priority access is based roughly in order of age until a vaccine has been offered to everyone over the age of 50, which is almost 40% of the U.K. population. Younger people with health conditions that put them at increased risk from COVID-19 also will take precedence.