UK first to start Covid-19 vaccinations

25th Dec 2020
UK first to start Covid-19 vaccinations

The scientists behind BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine Prof Uğur Şahin & Dr Özlem Türeci. (Credit:
BioNTech/Anadolu Agency)

The UK has become the first nation to start vaccinating its citizens with the newly approved Covid-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech.

First to receive the vaccine was 90-year-old grandmother Margret Keenan, at a hospital in Coventry. Many more people aged over 80 have now received the vaccine along with NHS hospital and care staff. Canada has also authorised the vaccine, and the US is expected to follow.

With the news that other Covid-19 vaccine candidates are ready to undergo review by regulatory bodies more than one vaccine may receive approval within the coming weeks.

After a difficult year it may seem the end of the pandemic is in sight, but getting regulatory approval is just the first step. Vaccine production needs to be ramped up to provide enough doses, not just for the UK, but for the rest of the world.

Mass vaccination programmes need to be organised, which in the case of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is more complicated as the vaccine needs to be transported and stored at -80C.

The initial doses of the vaccine delivered to the UK will be prioritised for certain groups – healthcare workers and people over 80 years old initially before it is rolled out to those over 75 years, then 70 years, 65 years and so on, and to adults in vulnerable groups. How long it will take is unclear and will depend on how many vaccine doses the UK gets and if more than one vaccine is approved for use.

Whilst it is great news that the vaccination programme is underway health officials are warning that the virus is still being transmitted and cases continue rising in many areas.

Given that it will take many months before enough doses of the vaccine are delivered to immunise the whole population, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has warned that it is unlikely that life will return to normal before spring next year and that face masks may be needed for another year.

The public still needs to be vigilant and maintain social distancing, and restrictions are likely to be kept in place for some months to come.

Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine

UK’s regulators have authorised the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use. The vaccine has been produced in less than a year, which is an amazing scientific achievement, but as is only natural, some people feel nervous about a new product. The trials involved over 43,000 people and the vaccine was found to be 95 per cent effective. This is more effective than the annual flu vaccine, which is typically around 40 – 60 per cent effective.

The vaccine had a good safety profile, with no serious adverse effects reported. The worst side effects reported were fatigue and headaches after the second dose, and injection site soreness, which is common after any vaccine. The trials included people aged up to 85 years of age. The vaccine was also tested in groups with other underlying conditions such as diabetes, cancer and HIV, and their response was comparable to other groups.

The active ingredient in the vaccine is mRNA, a small piece of genetic code that carries the instructions to make the virus’s spike protein. The spike protein is a structural protein on the outer surface of a virus that is essential for the virus to attach and then infect a host cell.

The mRNA is delivered in an inert fatty material into the muscle in the upper arm. The mRNA is then taken up by special cells that form part of the immune system and the mRNA genetic code instructs the cells to make the spike protein, this is similar to what would happen if you had been infected by the virus – but as this is only a part of the virus it cannot transmit the disease itself.

The spike protein is recognised as foreign by the immune system, which becomes activated and makes antibodies. Once the immune system has learnt how to fight the virus, it will launch a more rapid and robust reaction when it next encounters the virus, and thus the person has been immunised against the disease. The mRNA in the vaccine only lasts in the body for a few days before it breaks down.

Two doses of the virus are needed for full immunity. It is unclear at this point how long immunity lasts, and this will be an ongoing area of research as scientists continue to monitor the original volunteers from the trials.

The Oxford vaccine, developed by Oxford University, is also ready to undergo regulatory approval and, if authorised the UK, will have access to around 4 million doses this year, with more on order.

This vaccine has some advantages over the Pfizer vaccine as it does not need storage at -80C making it easy to store so can be used in GP settings and other vaccination sites, and it is cheaper. China and Russia have approved their own vaccines and are currently rolling out vaccination programmes.

Married scientists behind BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine

The science behind the Covid-19 vaccine comes from a German-based biotech company BioNTech, which was founded in 2008 by spouses Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci. Dedicated scientists and entrepreneurs Professor Şahin, 55, and Dr Türeci, 53, both share a deep love of science and reportedly even went to the labs on their wedding day.

Professor Şahin, from Turkey, trained as a doctor studying in Cologne and Hamburg but later turned his attention to studying immunotherapy. Dr Türeci, who is the company’s Chief Medical Officer, was born in Germany and is the daughter of a Turkish physician who migrated to the country from Istanbul.

Initially, the focus of BioNTech was on using modified genetic code mRNA to help the body fight cancer by producing cancer-fighting antibodies. When Sahin read about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, he quickly realised he could adapt his mRNA anti-cancer strategies to fighting the virus and set about developing an mRNA vaccine.

This is a novel approach to making vaccines; the mRNA in the vaccine enters cells in the body and causes them to produce part of the coronavirus’ protein envelope. These foreign proteins cannot infect cells, but they are enough to trigger an immune response by the body.

The company won financial backing from Pfizer and Chinese drug-maker Fosun in March, and soon a vaccine candidate was selected and entered clinical trials. This will be the first mRNA-based vaccine to get approval and could signify a significant leap forward in vaccine research.

 Rachel Kayani

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