The coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, approved Wednesday in Britain, is due to be rolled out from January 4th. This is welcome news for the country which has now recorded more than 70,000 deaths from the virus. However, it may be some time before it gets the greenlight for the rest of the EU.
The independent Medicines and Healthcare products and Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said the vaccine "met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness", and a roll-out was set for 4 January.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who spent several days in intensive care with Covid earlier this year, called it "truly fantastic news" and "a triumph for British science".
Britain has ordered 100 million doses and the Department of Health expects four million doses to be ready by the end of the year, and 40 million by the end of March.
It had already approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for general use, and some 800,000 people have received a first dose in the country's biggest ever vaccination drive.
The Pfizer/BioNTech inoculation began in the 27-member bloc over the weekend.
Easier storage, cheaper
But as daily Covid infection rates hit record highs, the British government is pinning its hopes on the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, which is cheaper to produce, and easier to store and transport.
Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, it does not require ultra-low freezing temperatures and can use normal refrigerated supply chains, making it a more attractive proposition globally.
Efficacy is estimated at around 70 percent 22 days after the first of two injection set at two to four weeks apart, according to Wei Shen Lim, who heads the government's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
However, the AstraZeneca product is unlikely to get a green light in the European Union in the next month, according to the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
"No formal marketing authorisation has yet been submitted to EMA, therefore EMA's committee for human medicines has not yet set a timetable" for approving the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab, the Amsterdam-based agency told AFP.
The regulator, charged with overseeing vaccines' authorisation in the EU before they can be marketed, approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on 21 December. It is expected to rule on Moderna's vaccine on 6 January.
The regulator's deputy executive director Noel Walthion told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad on Tuesday that a possible approval in January is "unlikely," a statement confirmed by the agency late Tuesday.
The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is currently undergoing a "rolling review" which allows the EMA to examine safety and efficacy data as they are released, even before a formal application for authorisation is filed by the manufacturer.
This procedure speeds up the evaluation of a marketing authorisation application once it is made, the EMA said.
For EU countries, it is up to the European Commission in Brussels to issue the final green light after EMA approval.
Britain is struggling with another surge in the virus, with a record 53,135 daily cases reported on Tuesday, heaping fresh pressure on health services during their busiest winter months.
New variant behind the surge
More than 71,000 people testing positive for the disease have now died -- one of the worst tolls in the world.
But doctors say many frontline healthcare workers have been struck down with a new, potentially more contagious variant of the virus, which is thought to be behind the surge.
More than 24 million people, or 43 percent of England alone, are already living under strict stay-at-home measures, with bars, restaurants, pubs and other entertainment closed.
The government is under pressure to follow other European countries and introduce even tougher restrictions, including delaying the return to school next week.