London, United Kingdom – The UK’s approval of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for widespread use was greeted with glee this week by government ministers, public health experts and Britons.
But in the days since, calls for caution against so-called vaccine nationalism have grown.
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“We will remember this moment as the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease,” Alok Sharma, the UK’s business secretary, tweeted after the UK announced on Wednesday that it was first to approve the vaccine.
Sharma’s comments prompted a rebuke from the German ambassador to the UK, Andreas Michaelis, who questioned why it was “so difficult to recognise this important step forward as a great international effort and success”.
“I really don’t think this is a national story,” Michaelis said. “This is European and transatlantic.”
On Thursday, amid a slew of baseless claims from government officials that Brexit catalysed the speedy authorisation process, Gavin Williamson, education secretary, said the UK was on course to get a coronavirus vaccine first because it is a “much better country” than France, Belgium and the United States.
His claims drew a terse response from European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer, who said: “This is not a football competition, we are talking about the life and health of people.”
The EU’s own regulators issued caution over the UK’s move to approve Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine – proven to have a 95 percent efficacy rate in trials – saying their longer evaluation process was safer.
In a blunt statement on Wednesday, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said its procedure for assessing the vaccine, which will conclude on December 29, was based on more evidence and required further checks than its UK counterpart.
The US’s leading infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, initially said the UK had “rushed” the approval and not reviewed the vaccine “as carefully” as US health regulators, but he has since walked back those comments.
Health experts said political posturing could harm efforts to boost public confidence in COVID-19 vaccines at a critical time.
“We must be careful not to be nationalistic about this,” David Taylor, professor emeritus of pharmaceutical and public health policy at University College London, told Al Jazeera.
Taylor warned against “destructive competition”, adding people should instead remember “achievements made across the world”.
“It’s good to compare and contrast the different properties of different vaccines, for example,” he said. “But when this turns to bad-mouthing each other or undermining cooperation, that obviously is undesirable and generally witless.”
The UK, which has stockpiled more vaccines to cover its population than almost any other country, is well placed to play a key role in the global fight against the pandemic.
As well as ushering in Pfizer-BioNTech’s product, a move which is expected to be followed by similar approvals worldwide, a vaccine being developed in the country by British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, in collaboration with the University of Oxford, has demonstrated promising results.
At an estimated $4 per dose, AstraZeneca-Oxford’s is significantly cheaper than Pfizer-BioNTech’s offering at $15, and will be made available at cost price to poorer nations.
Crucially, it can be stored at standard refrigerator temperatures.
Pfizer-BioNTech’s needs to be shipped and stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94F).
‘We need more than a vaccine’
Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at London-based health charity Wellcome Trust, told Al Jazeera the UK-made shot had a “distinct advantage for successful global rollout”, compared with other COVID-19 vaccines, because it can use “existing delivery mechanisms”.
“To protect the world from COVID-19, we need more than a vaccine: we need vaccination,” she said.
Weller said that, unlike the vaccine produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca’s is part of Covax – the World Health Organization-led global initiative aiming to distribute about two billion vaccines to 92 low- and middle-income countries at a maximum cost of $3 a dose.
The virus has led to the death of more than 1.5 million people worldwide since the pandemic began late last year.
The UK has been repeatedly criticised for its handling of the pandemic, with its death toll at more than 60,000 people, according to official figures, marking the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Europe.
“The challenge now is to get the political will together to really protect all those at risk,” said UCL’s Taylor. “But I’m confident that the developments we are seeing unfolding will mean the great majority of the world is appropriately protected.”
“As the initial vaccines are rolled out, we must remember that we are racing the virus and not each other,” Weller warned.
“No single country can do this alone and until the virus is eliminated as a public health threat everywhere, nowhere is safe.”