LONDON : UK allows general use of Covid Vaccine : Britain on Wednesday became the first western country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine for general use, while Italy and Japan promised free inoculations for all even as the global death toll ticked towards 1.5 million.

A mere 12 months after the pandemic began in China, the UK's independent medicines regulator gave its green light to the BioNTech Pfizer drug in double-quick time but insisted safety had come first.

''Everybody can be confident that no corners whatsoever have been cut,'' said Medicines and Healthcare product Regulatory Agency [MHRA] chief executive June Raine.

''The public deserves nothing less.''

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the move heralded a vaccination programme ''that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again'', and the government said some 800,000 doses would be administered as soon as next week.

With the European Medicines Agency [EMA] expected to rule on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by December 29, ''we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel'' with plans for nationwide free inoculations, Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said Wednesday.

Japans' parliament passed a bill to the same effect.

As in Britain, Italy pans for medical staff and workers and residents in elderly care homes to be among the first to be vaccinated, followed by other old people, essential workers and chronically ill people.

But ''do not mistake the first ray of sunlight for an escape from danger,'' Speranza said. ''If we let down our guard now, third wave is just around the corner.''

With tens of millions in England still under restrictions after the lifting of a nationwide lockdown,. Johnson also urged the public to remain cautious.

Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said the UK certification was a ''historic moment in the fight against Covid-19''.

''This authorization is a goal we have been working toward since we first declared that science will win,'' he said.

US giant Pfizer and German newcomer BioNTech added that they expected further regulatory decisions from other countries ''in the coming days and weeks''.

Other vaccines expected to come on stream soon include ones from Moderna and AstraZeneca/Oxford University, which has strong back from the UK government.

Scientists also acclaimed the UK news but cautioned that logistical challenges remained. The Pfizer-BioNTech jab has to be stored at - 70 degrees Celsius [-94 degrees Fahrenheit], requiring special freezers.

It requires two doses 21 days apart, and the MHRA said immunity kicks in a week after the second dose. [AFP]


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