Over the past few months, the world has been trapped in an endless cycle of lockdowns, quarantine, and zoom meetings. Covid-19, from the point it had first emerged in Wuhan China, in November of last year, has swept through our lives and has caused the whole world to be turned upside down. It has infected over 60 million people globally and killed more than one million. Our only hope throughout the pandemic has been the emergence of a vaccine. While efforts to make one started early on in January 2020, only recently have a few vaccines passed all of the trials and are awaiting approval of countries' medical boards. As of the 2nd of December, the United Kingdom (UK) approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, becoming one of the few countries to approve any vaccine. In the following analysis, I will explore in more detail how exactly the UK was able to approve the vaccine so quickly and what implications it has for both Britain and other countries awaiting a vaccine.
Under normal circumstances and European law, any vaccine has to be approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) before it can be used in EU-member states. Only in emergency cases can states bypass regulations allowing them to distribute the vaccine within their domestic markets temporarily. As the UK is still subject to European law until the end of their transition period on January 1st, 2021, they applied for this emergency procedure and were, therefore, able to proceed. Instead of having the vaccine tested by the EMA, they had their national regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) vet the vaccine. Although this success was framed as a positive consequence of Brexit by the British health secretary -Matt Hancock- in statements describing the non-EU encumbered quick process, this message was not backed by Boris Johnson. Furthermore, under European law, this is also factually not true, as the UK still has to abide by the EMA’s guidelines until the end of their transition period on December 31st. This shows that the UK did as any other EU member state could have done by taking the emergency route, and did not have any special regulations attributable to Brexit.
So why was the UK the only country to approve the vaccine and why are the other EU member states waiting on the approval of EMA? Although there are certainly several answers to this question, recent analyses have focused mainly on two:
First of all, the rapid approval of the vaccine could be explained by the significant number of corona cases in the UK. Comparatively, the UK has more Covid-19 cases than Germany, at around 1.7 million cases, even though it has a smaller population. Although it does not have the highest number of cases in Europe, the UK has very high infection rates and one of the highest death tolls in Europe. Analysts have put this down to a multitude of reasons including, poor governance, lack of proper advice and more generally having been through tough years recently with Brexit. Doubtlessly, a vaccine would lower the infection rates and save numerous lives.
Second of all, many countries are hesitant to go the fast track due to apprehension over backlash. Approving the vaccine faster than other countries opens up doubts in the population about the effectiveness of the vaccine (not only among anti-vaxxers). The vaccine has already been formulated much faster than most vaccines, which usually take around 10 years to pass testing and reach the market. So, approving this vital vaccine faster than other countries can further intensify the anxiety already felt. Many countries such as Germany are already struggling to contain protests from anti-vaxxers, so going the official route could potentially open up the path for more acceptance of the vaccine. This is especially relevant when considering that in order to achieve herd immunity, a large
amount of the population must be vaccinated.
Nonetheless, despite such concerns, it should be noted the MHRA is world renown and has an excellent reputation. Before Brexit talks, it worked hand in hand with the EMA. Additionally, the data supplied by Pfizer/BioNTech indicates that the vaccine is 95% effective in all age groups and safe for citizen consumption. This is proven by mild and acceptable side-effects, including headaches and muscle pain. Although it might still be months before our everyday life becomes normal again, the vaccine has brought hope that normality is not just wishful thinking. However, by being the first country to approve the vaccine, the UK needs to be aware that this inherently makes them somewhat of a "Guinea Pig". Their every mistake and success will be dolefully noted by other countries to improve on what they have yet to begin. As Sarah Booseley from the Guardian wisely remarked: "Pioneers get the glory, but it's an easier road to travel for those who come
Written by Wenke Steinwart, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.