By Ben Makori
LONDON (Reuters) - Londoners set aside reservations to welcome the fast-track approval by British health authorities of a new COVID vaccine just over three weeks after U.S. group Pfizer published its clinical trial data on the drug.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the news that the vaccine would be available from next week as a "fantastic" win for Britain, which moved ahead of the rest of Europe and the United States to approve the new shot for general use.
With the nation facing a coronavirus death toll close to 60,000 and the worst economic crisis since World War Two, the public is torn between worries over the pandemic and scepticism over the government's shifting lockdown plans.
The vaccine approval was a rare piece of good news.
London resident Paul O'Farrel said he was "a bit reserved" about the news, given the unprecedented speed with which the drug received clearance but said on balance, the severity of the crisis seemed to justify it.
"We usually have a few years before we give them to the public so I am not sure about it but obviously it is great for people who really are such high risk, it doesn't matter one way or another," he said.
Britain's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) granted emergency use approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, just 23 days after Pfizer announced on Nov. 9 that trials had shown it was 95% effective.
EU regulators are taking more time, saying on Wednesday their longer approval process was safer and included more checks than Britain's fast-track procedure. But the head of the MHRA said it cut no corners in a "rigorous" rolling review process.
"We definitely need a vaccine. I can understand people's concerns about it being rushed through but that is what the trials are there for," said London resident Paul Mann, who said he would be "first in line" to get one when it became available.
In a move to counter doubts over the speed of the approval as well as generalised anti-vaccine scepticism, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he would be willing to take a dose live on television if that helped persuade people it was safe.
Britain, which has ordered 40 million doses, will start vaccinations early next week, when it receives 800,000 doses from Pfizer's manufacturing centre in Belgium. The speed of the rollout depends on how fast Pfizer can manufacture and deliver the vaccine, which must be shipped and stored at -70C (-94F).
Londoner Chris Holmes said he had no hesitation. "Let's get there, let's get the vaccines and see how they work and let's get rid of the virus."
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Giles Elgood)