“Help is on the way.”

That was the message from UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock this morning announcing that the UK would be the first western country to issue emergency approval for the Pfizer / BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

The vaccine

The newly approved vaccine was jointly developed by the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the German company BioNTech. Pfizer revealed in a press release that the vaccine has been shown to be more than 90% effective against Covid-19 and has no serious safety concerns. It is given in two doses approximately three weeks apart, with 90% effectiveness occurring one week after the second dose.

The vaccine must be stored in extremely cold temperatures (the recommended storage environment is -70 ° C). Cans for the UK and Europe are made in Belgium and shipped to Pfizer’s network of distribution centers with special containers.

Distribution: when and how?

The vaccinations are expected to start next week. According to the BBC, 800,000 cans are on their way to the UK in the coming days, with millions more to come over the month. Due to the need to keep this vaccine ultra-cold, it is only sent to large hospitals for distribution. The Wall Street Journal reports that 40 million doses have been ordered for the UK, enough to vaccinate 20 million people – a little less than a third of the country’s population.

The UK will first distribute the vaccine to its most vulnerable populations. PBS reports that healthcare workers will receive the vaccine during the first wave of vaccinations, followed by home care residents. From there, older age groups and people with underlying health risks will have priority before the vaccine is eventually released to the general public.

Competition all over the world

Pfizer’s vaccine isn’t the only one in development. A similarly effective vaccine from competitor Moderna is also about to be approved. A third western vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca has also shown strong results, but is under increasing scrutiny by regulators and concerns of the scientific community about dosing issues and one study participant’s claim that he was seriously injured by the vaccine. Legal action has been taken on both sides.

According to an Associated Press report, EU approval for the Pfizer vaccine is expected during a December 29 meeting with talks on Moderna’s offer in January, while the US is still hoping to make its choices for both vaccines before Christmas.

Russia and China both have homegrown vaccines approved and commercialize them in countries around the world. However, these have not yet completed clinical trials and the results have yet to be confirmed.

Take them home

The UK’s announcement is an important step in the fight against the coronavirus. Although the UK gave approval first, other nations are expected to begin sales in the coming months. Once more vaccines are developed and put into circulation, pandemic control may finally be within reach.

Sean Marsala is a health journalist based out of Philadelphia, PA. With a passion for technology, you can usually find him reading, surfing the internet, and exploring virtual worlds.

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