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No evidence Pfizer vaccine won't work against new virus variant, says EU regulator after its approval

A sign in the window of an office at Pfizer Manufacturing in Puurs, Belgium (AP)Premium
A sign in the window of an office at Pfizer Manufacturing in Puurs, Belgium (AP)

  • The comments came after EU regulator approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine, putting Europe on course to start inoculations within a week
  • European Union countries including Germany, France, Austria and Italy have said they plan to start vaccinations from Dec 27

The chief of European Union's medicines regulator said Monday it appeared the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine would protect against a new strain of the coronavirus found mainly in Britain.

"At this moment there is no evidence to suggest this vaccine will not work against the new variant," European Medicines Agency (EMA) chief Emer Cooke told a press conference as she announced approval of the jab.

The comments came after EMA approved the use of the COVID-19 vaccine jointly developed by US company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech , putting Europe on course to start inoculations within a week.

Following a closed-doors expert meeting Monday, the EU drug regulator said it was recommending the shot be licensed for use in people over 16 years of age, with some exceptions. The pharmaceutical companies will need to submit follow-up data on their vaccine for the next year.

European Union countries including Germany, France, Austria and Italy have said they plan to start vaccinations from Dec. 27 as Europe tries to catch up with the United States and Britain, where inoculations began earlier this month.

Having gained the green light from the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the final step is approval by the European Commission, which is expected in the coming days. The Commission typically follows the EMA's advice.

Preparations for the vaccine rollout come as the identification of a highly infectious new strain of the coronavirus in Britain caused chaos across the region, with countries shutting off travel ties with the UK and disrupting trade ahead of the Christmas holiday.

The pandemic has killed about 470,000 Europeans and is picking up pace in the winter months, crushing economies in the process. Many governments have imposed tighter restrictions on households to try to curb a second wave of infections and avoid overwhelming healthcare systems.

Commission head Ursula von der Leyen had already targeted the start of vaccinations over the Dec. 27-29 period.

Student medics, retired doctors, pharmacists and soldiers are being drafted into a European vaccination campaign of unprecedented scale.

A phased-in approach means frontline healthcare workers and elderly residents of care homes are being prioritised, with most national schemes not reaching the general public until the end of the first quarter of 2021 at the earliest.

The goal of the 27-member EU is to reach coverage of 70% of its 450 million people.

The vaccine has already been given some form of regulatory authorization in at least 15 countries.

Britain, Canada and the U.S. authorized the vaccine to be used according to emergency provisions, meaning the shot is an unlicensed product whose temporary use is justified by the pandemic that has killed almost 1.7 million people worldwide to date, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday that a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70 per cent more transmissible than existing strains appeared to be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England in recent weeks. But he stressed "there's no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness," or that vaccines will be less effective against it.

Johnson will chair an emergency response meeting on Monday to discuss international travel, in particular the flow of freight in and out of Britain. EU officials are due to hold a meeting at 1000 GMT on coordinating their response.

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