The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is working to authorise a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of the year, in a bid to start vaccination by January 2021, with the goal of vaccinating “more than half of Europe”.
EMA director Guido Rasi made the announcement this weekend (Saturday November 14).
The EMA is currently examining data from seven laboratories, it said, and is aiming to deliver authorisation for a vaccine by the end of 2020, to allow the first vaccinations to begin in early 2021.
It said that its goal would be to vaccinate “more than half the European population” over the course of a year, and work to achieve “sufficient immunity” by the end of 2021.
The frontrunner vaccinations being considered include those from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna.
Pfizer, working with BioNTech, has already claimed its vaccine offers a 90% effectiveness rate.
The EMA’s timeline appears to match predictions made by other leading experts, including Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, eminent virologist and head of research at French health research institute Inserm (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale).
In a recent interview with Le Monde newspaper, she predicted that France would likely begin vaccinations in early 2021.
This virus ‘a lot less complex than other viruses’
In response to some concerns over how quickly the vaccinations have been developed, Professor Jean-Daniel Lelièvre, head of the infectious diseases service at the Henri-Mondor hospital in Créteil (Val-de-Marne), said this rapidity is not so surprising.
He said: “This virus is a lot less complex than other viruses, such as the HIV virus. Even though it was unknown until now, it is not as though it is a new virus that has arrived about which we know absolutely nothing.”
Similarly, Dr Kieny said that in order to improve public confidence in the vaccine, “We must be very transparent about possible side-effects, on the effectiveness of vaccines after vaccination, and also in the months after. We must be precise about which people they protect well, and which they protect less well”.
She said: “We must show that the first aim of vaccination campaigns is not to help industry make a profit, but to ensure public health.”
Earlier still in the UK?
The plans in Europe and France come as UK health authorities say they are aiming to begin vaccinating people by the start of December.
This week, UK health minister Matt Hancock said that the government was looking to begin vaccinating the most vulnerable - the elderly and/or most fragile - from December 1, if the Pfizer-BioNTech jab is ready, and has received the “green light” from the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
The minister said that the NHS would be ready to start “anytime” from December 1.
Downing Street said it had secured the purchase of 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine - enough for 20 million people, as the jab requires two injections - from the Puurs factory in Belgium, including the delivery of 10 million by the end of the year.
Mr Hancock said the government had secured the delivery of the vaccine, even in the event of a “no deal” Brexit after January 1, 2021.
The British government has also said it is also urgently awaiting the results of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccination trial, and has put in a pre-order - pending results - of up to 100 million doses.
This type of vaccine is less difficult to store (as it does not need the extremely-low storage temperatures required by the Pfizer jab) and is said to be around 10 times’ less expensive. Results of the current phase 3 trial are expected within the next few weeks.