Britain on Wednesday became the first country in the world to approve a coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca as it battles a major winter surge driven by a new, highly contagious variant of the virus.
“The government has today accepted the recommendation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to authorize Oxford University/AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for use,” the health ministry said.
The AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine should be effective against a rapidly spreading new variant of the virus, AstraZeneca’s Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said.
“Our belief at this point is that this vaccine should be effective against the variant,” he told BBC radio.
The pandemic has already killed 1.7 million people around the world, sown chaos through the global economy and upended normal life for billions since it began in Wuhan, China, a year ago.
Britain and South Africa in particular are grappling with new variants of the coronavirus, which the government and scientists say are more contagious; many countries have responded by banning passenger flights and blocking trade.
AstraZeneca and other developers have said they are studying the impact of the new variant but expect that their shots will be effective against it.
Regulatory endorsement is a welcome boost for AstraZeneca and the Oxford team, which have been accused of a lack of clarity about the results from late-stage trials.
The approval of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca was a “triumph for British science”, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
“It is truly fantastic news - and a triumph for British science - that the @UniofOxford/@AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved for use,” Johnson tweeted.
It is truly fantastic news - and a triumph for British science - that the @UniofOxford /@AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved for use.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) December 30, 2020
We will now move to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible. pic.twitter.com/cR4pRdZJlT
For his part, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the Oxford University-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine provides a path out of the pandemic by the spring, by which time millions of vulnerable people will be protected.
“The NHS will be able to deliver these shots into people’s arms at the speed at which it can be manufactured,” he told Sky News.
“I am also now, with this approval this morning, highly confident that we can get enough vulnerable people vaccinated by the spring that we can now see our route out of this pandemic.”
He said the recommended 12-week gap between the first and second doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot was “very helpful” because it enabled more people to be immunized with a first shot that offered a high level of protection on its own.