About the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine

03 December 2020

After months of uncertainty, we finally have a vaccine for COVID-19 approved in the UK! Find out more about the much-anticipated Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine below.

How does the vaccine work?

This is a new type of vaccine based on genetic material called messenger RNA (mRNA), which is an instruction that tells cells to produce a harmless piece of the “spike protein” found on the outside of the virus that causes COVID-19. This vaccine is given in the upper arm muscle, introducing the mRNA instructions to muscle cells. After the protein piece is made by these cells, the instructions are destroyed. The protein pieces are then displayed on the surface of the muscle cells, in response to which, the body produces antibodies and other immune pathways are activated. This teaches our bodies how to fight COVID-19, protecting us against future infection and providing immunity. This is the same process that happens naturally when our bodies fight infection.

The vaccine will be given as two injections, the second dose being a booster 21 days after the first.

How effective is it?

According to the MHRA, the vaccine offers up to 95% protection against COVID-19. The biggest challenge with the vaccine is the way in which it has to be stored, at minus 70 degrees C. Therefore, though it is very effective, it is not the easiest vaccine to use and distribute!

How did the vaccine get approved so fast?

Back in April, our blog - Balancing regulation and innovation in the race for a coronavirus cure -explored the challenges faced by bodies such as the FDA and MHRA, in balancing the need to efficiently approve any treatments or preventative measures against COVID-19 with making sure drugs are safe.

Being a global health crisis, the vaccine for COVID-19 was given the fast-track status by regulatory bodies. This meant that approval of the vaccine was prioritised, and the process accelerated to help hit the balance between public safety and efficiency in approval.

Usually, the developmental process for new vaccines can take over a decade; the new Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is the fastest ever to go through this same process, taking just 10 months to go from concept to reality. This is not because safety standards are lower, instead there has been unprecedented collaboration and a huge amount of funding made available across the globe.

While there are currently no licensed mRNA vaccines available, researchers have been studying and working with them for decades. They are attractive because they can be developed in a laboratory using readily available materials. This means the process can be standardised and scaled up, making vaccine development faster than traditional methods.

mRNA vaccines have been studied before for flu, Zika, rabies, and cytomegalovirus (CMV). As soon as the genetic information about the virus that causes COVID-19 was available, scientists began designing the mRNA instructions for cells to build the unique spike protein into an mRNA vaccine.

Is it really safe for use?

Although the vaccine has been approved quickly, it has still gone through the same process which every new vaccine has to undertake. It has been tested on over 43,000 people through months of rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the resulting data by MHRA experts has concluded that it meets its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness. We can therefore be assured that it is safe for use.

How will the vaccine be rolled out in the UK?

From next week, the vaccine will be available across the UK. This will be the largest scale vaccination campaign in our history, with around 50 hospitals now on standby and vaccination centres being set up.

Currently, the UK has 40 million doses, which will serve 20 million people. Experts have begun to draw up a priority list, targeting those at highest risk. At the top are care home residents and staff, people over 80 and other health and social care workers. As more vaccines become available in 2021, younger people with pre-existing health conditions and well as those over 50 will be vaccinated.

Will this put an end to social restrictions?

Not yet. Although the vaccine is going to be rolled out shortly, to ensure its success we must all continue to play our part in following necessary restrictions. Immunity following vaccination begins to kick in after the first dose but reaches its full effect seven days after the second (booster) dose. In addition, until enough of the population have been vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity (70-90%), people are still at risk, particularly those who are immunocompromised and may be unable to receive the vaccine themselves. This means we must still socially distance, wear masks and continue to test people and isolate for the foreseeable future. In turn, this will help the NHS to do its work without being overwhelmed with cases.