Britain gave emergency approval on Wednesday to Pfizer’s American-developed coronavirus vaccine, leaping ahead of the United States to become the first Western country to allow its health service to begin mass inoculations against a disease that has killed more than 1.4 million people worldwide.
The approval kicks off a vaccination campaign with little precedent in modern medicine, encompassing not only ultracold dry ice and trays of glass vials but also a crusade against anti-vaccine misinformation.
The specter of Britain beating the United States to approval had already angered the White House in recent days, heaping additional pressure on American regulators to match Britain’s pace.
But while the go-ahead for Pfizer bodes well for rich countries like Britain that have ordered tens of millions of doses, it offered little relief to poorer countries that could not afford to buy supplies in advance and may struggle to pay for the exceptional demands of distributing the vaccine.
Already, the quandary of transporting vials at South Pole–like temperatures was dictating who could be vaccinated: Nursing-home residents were supposed to be Britain’s top priority under an advisory committee’s plans, but a limit on how many times officials believe the Pfizer vaccine can be moved before it loses effectiveness means that National Health Service staff members will receive the shots first.
The government has been coy about how quickly it could stock hospitals after approval, but doctors and nurses were preparing to begin vaccinating their colleagues within days. For Britain, which has suffered one of Europe’s highest per capita death tolls from the virus, the decision by its drug regulator testified to a vaccination strategy that has been the most aggressive in the West.
After strengthening an old law that allows it to break from the European Union’s regulatory orbit in public health emergencies, Britain asked its Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to fast-track reviews of Pfizer’s vaccine, which was 95 percent effective in a late-stage trial, as well as AstraZeneca’s. For each person in Britain, the government has bought more than five doses of a catalog of different vaccines.