LONDON — Britain became the first country in the world to authorize a rigorously tested COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday and could be dispensing shots within days — a historic step toward eventually ending the scourge that has killed more than 1.4 million people around the globe.
In giving the go-ahead for emergency use of the vaccine developed by American drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech, Britain vaulted past the United States by at least a week. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is not scheduled to consider the vaccine until Dec. 10.
“This is a day to remember, frankly, in a year to forget,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.
The announcement sets the stage for the biggest vaccination campaign in British history and came just ahead of what experts are warning will be a long, dark winter, with the coronavirus surging to epic levels in the U.S. and Europe and putting pressure on hospitals and businesses.
Officials cautioned that several tough months still lie ahead even in Britain, given the monumental scale of the operation needed to vaccinate large swaths of the population. Because of the limited initial supply, the first shots will be reserved for those most in danger, namely nursing home patients, the elderly and health care workers.
Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency recommended the vaccine after clinical trials involving tens of thousands of volunteers showed it was 95% effective and turned up no serious side effects. The vaccine is still considered experimental while final testing is done.
“This is an unprecedented piece of science,” given that the vaccine was authorized less than a year after the virus was discovered, said David Harper, senior consulting fellow in global health at the Chatham House think tank.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that the “searchlights of science” had picked out the “invisible enemy,” which has been blamed for close to 60,000 deaths in Britain. He said that in developing the vaccine, scientists had performed “biological jujitsu” by turning the virus on itself.
Other countries aren’t far behind: Regulators not only in the U.S. but in the European Union and Canada also are vetting the Pfizer vaccine along with a shot made by Moderna Inc. British and Canadian regulators are also considering a vaccine made by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Amid growing concern in the U.S. that Americans will greet vaccines with skepticism, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Britain’s decision “should give Americans additional confidence in the quality of such a vaccine.” The virus has killed more than 270,000 in the U.S.