London, Dec 3: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday hailed the "searchlights of science" which have fought back against the "invisible enemy" COVID-19 with an approved Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine but urged the British public to not get carried away with "over optimism".
Addressing a 10 Downing Street briefing to confirm that the vaccine will be ready to be deployed to the highest risk categories by next week, Johnson stressed that it remains important that the country follows the tiered COVID Winter Plan and remain under alert to get through the long and cold months ahead before the vaccine administration process is in full swing by early next year.
"We have been waiting and hoping for the day when the searchlights of science would pick out our invisible enemy and give us the power to stop that enemy from making us ill and now the scientists have done it," said Johnson.
"It is all the more vital that as we celebrate this scientific achievement we are not carried away with over optimism, or fall into the naive belief that the struggle is over. It's not, we've got to stick to our Winter Plan, he said.
The prime minister confirmed that in line with the advice of the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the first phase of the vaccine deployment will include care home residents, health and care staff, the elderly and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
"But there are immense logistical challenges: the vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees and each person needs two injections, three weeks apart. So it will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected," he said.
"[But] we are no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year in the spring, but rather on the sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed, he added.
His address came hours after the UK government confirmed that it has accepted the independent Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) assessment and authorised the use of Pfizer/BioNTech to immunise against COVID-19.
Now authorisation has been granted, Pfizer will begin delivery of the vaccine to the UK. In making the recommendation to authorise supply, the MHRA will decide any additional quality assurance checks that may be required before a vaccine can be made available, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
The UK claims to be the first country to pre-order supplies of the vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech, with 800,000 doses being made available next week and 40 million doses ordered overall enough to vaccinate up to a third of the population, and the majority of doses anticipated in the first half of next year.
"As a nation we owe every scientist, clinician and trial volunteer an enormous debt of gratitude for their victory won against odds that at times seemed impossible. It is thanks to their efforts, and of our Vaccine Taskforce, that the UK was the first country to sign a deal with Pfizer/BioNTech and will now be the first to deploy their vaccine," said UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma.
The MHRA started the rolling review of Pfizer/BioNTech's data in October and the UK government asked the regulator to assess the vaccine for its suitability for authorisation under Regulation 174 of the Human Medicines Regulations, enabling the temporary supply of medicines to be authorised in response to a public health need, which the regulator has recommended.
The state-funded National Health Service (NHS) for England said deployment plans will include hospital hubs for NHS and care staff and older patients to get vaccinated; local community services with local teams and GPs already signing up to take part in the programme; and vaccination centres across the country, ensuring people can access a vaccine regardless of where they live.
"This vaccine has now passed all of the extensive checks needed for authorisation to supply and will soon be ready to be delivered to the NHS," said Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England.
The vaccine will be available for free across the UK, with the government said to be working with the devolved administrations to ensure it is deployed fairly across all four nations England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.