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U.K. Regulators Approve COVID-19 Vaccine For Widespread Use

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There is some big news, some very exciting news out of the United Kingdom this morning in the global fight against COVID-19. The U.K. approved a coronavirus vaccine for widespread use. This is the one that Pfizer and BioNTech have created. This is a world first. Russia had previously, of course, approved a vaccine, but the U.K. is the first country where regulators said yes to a vaccine that is backed by transparent science. And the U.K.'s health secretary, Matt Hancock, speaking with Sky News, confirmed it will be rolled out imminently.

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MATT HANCOCK: Yes, we will have it ready early next week. The - this is fantastic news.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For more on this story, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt outside London. Good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are regulators saying about this vaccine? Do they sound confident?

LANGFITT: They do - I mean, cautiously confident, I would say. This morning, they were on the television here in the United Kingdom. Munir Pirmohamed - he's a professor of medicine at Liverpool University. He also chairs the government's human medicine working group on COVID vaccines. And this is what he had to say.

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MUNIR PIRMOHAMED: The data showed that this vaccine is 95% effective. It is effective in all the groups that were given the vaccine within the trial, irrespective of age, sex, race or country that they lived in. The safety of the vaccine is similar to other vaccines, and most of the side effects are very mild and usually last for a day or so.

LANGFITT: Now, Lulu, I got to say, you know, a vaccine going from concept to approval in 10 months is absolutely extraordinary.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is.

LANGFITT: So the regulators are - also want to be very careful. So they'll be monitoring the rollout to make sure it's safe, make sure that people are responding well. We're going to see 800,000 doses apparently coming next week from Belgium, where it's being manufactured. There'll be two jabs 21 days apart. And the U.K. has ordered 40 million doses, which means about 20 million people could get it here next year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So who's first in line?

LANGFITT: I think what you're going to see is kind of what you and I would expect...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

LANGFITT: ...And that is they will start with the elderly, the most vulnerable. We'll see it in nursing homes. And what's really important with nursing homes, Lulu, is they were devastated. In the spring, the hospitals here inadvertently exported COVID-19 patients back into nursing homes. So there was a terrible loss of life there. So I think you're going to see a real focus on nursing homes and then, of course, health care workers. And then after that, next year, you'll see it rolling into the population. You'll see bulk vaccination.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, we know, though, that there are challenges to distribution...

LANGFITT: Absolutely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Because the vaccine needs to be so cold. So what's the plan?

LANGFITT: Yeah, so this is the downside of this particular vaccine. It's got to be stored in minus-70 Celsius, which is about minus-94 Fahrenheit. And so they're going to start off with hospitals where they feel they do have the infrastructure to do this. Then they'll be setting up vaccination centers probably in some of the field hospitals that they built in the spring. They call them Nightingale Hospitals after Florence Nightingale. And then I think you'll see it going into community clinics. But that's going to be more challenging because are - you know, are they going to have these kind of freezer facilities?

One thing that's interesting, Lulu, is the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford vaccine, which is also under review now by the regulator. It has a big advantage that it doesn't have to be stored at such low temperatures. And the U.K. has ordered 100 million doses of that. So there's a multipronged strategy here in the U.K. to get people vaccinated and begin, ideally, to pull out of this long, dark COVID tunnel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. I mean, if the government can roll it out efficiently and if it proves to be as effective as it is supposed to be, I imagine that means a big party imminently in Hyde Park? I'm kidding.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: But, I mean, I'm a little excited.

LANGFITT: Well, some people are still partying in Hyde Park, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is true.

LANGFITT: That's part of the problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is part of the problem.

LANGFITT: People are - people have been violating lockdown to some degree. I think what you would see is, psychologically, this would really lift a huge weight off people here. And I think also it would be good for the government because they're widely seen as handling this incompetently. We have the highest death toll in all of Europe. And then I think you're going to see businesses begin to do more investing and maybe begin to pull the economy back to where it was. It'll take a while, but maybe to a much better place to where it's been in the last eight, nine months.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Thank you very much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.