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U.K. Health Workers Could Get A COVID-19 Vaccine As Soon As Next Week

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United Kingdom has become the first country to approve a thoroughly tested COVID-19 vaccine. Health workers in the U.K. will soon be getting the first dose of the Pfizer shot. In fact, it may come as early as next week for some. The British health secretary, Matt Hancock, was exuberant at a news conference today but warned that most people still face a hard winter of protecting themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT HANCOCK: We need to all abide by these measures, and we need to stick with it. Let's stick with it because, you know, help is on its way. We can now see the way out, and we can see that by the spring, we're going to be through this.

INSKEEP: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris is covering this story. Richard, good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Looks like the British got done with approving the vaccine a little quicker than the United States did.

HARRIS: Indeed, it does. And, you know, every country has its own approval process. Think about China and Russia, for example. They actually rushed through approval without waiting for all of the studies to be completed. But, you know, the U.K. is obviously more like the U.S. where the goal is to make sure that a product is safe and effective. The FDA is moving in a much faster speed than it usually does due to the pandemic. But, you know, the FDA has also been repeatedly sending out the message that they aren't going to be cutting corners in its process. After all, this is a product that could end up in the arms of many millions of healthy Americans. People are, of course, eager to get a vaccine, but it would be a disaster if it weren't safe.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and there's already a debate in Europe, as we're covering elsewhere in today's news, some European officials are saying, wait a minute, Britain may have rushed this a little bit. Let's be careful about this. What effect might Britain's announcement, though, have in the United States?

HARRIS: Well, I'm not going to offer any predictions about how this often unpredictable government will act. News outlets yesterday did report that the FDA commissioner, Stephen Hahn, was summoned to the White House after it became clear that the U.K. was on the verge of approving the Pfizer vaccine. It seemed the White House didn't want to come in second on something it regards as an international race. But, you know, public health officials have been very public about their plan. And if they modify it now, it will raise all sorts of questions about political interference in what should be a really scientific process.

INSKEEP: Well, since the U.S. isn't going to come in first, let's presume that the plan stays as it is. How far along is the FDA?

HARRIS: Well, the FDA received Pfizer's application for clearance on November 20. Scientists at the agency needed some time to reanalyze all that data. And then the FDA has set a public meeting for a review on December 10, which is next Thursday. And approval could come really quickly after that, even, you know, that day or the next, assuming, of course, the review concludes that the vaccine is safe and effective.

INSKEEP: So that's the timeline. You've underlined for us already, I think, some of the potential risks if the FDA were pressured to accelerate the process.

HARRIS: Right. And I think one of the most important ones is public confidence. Polls repeatedly show that a substantial percentage of Americans are reluctant to get the coronavirus vaccine. There are all sorts of reasons for that. But among those is a concern that the process has been heavily influenced by political pressure from the White House and not based on science. So the FDA and other federal health officials have gone to great pains to lay out a transparent process. And they've repeatedly said that they will not be swayed by politics. And remember, Steve, a vaccine will only be effective at stopping a pandemic if a lot, a lot of people get it.

INSKEEP: Thanks for reminding us of that. We are in a situation where the pandemic won't really be slowed until many millions, hundreds of millions perhaps, of people get this vaccine. But it looks like at least a few people could get it a whole lot sooner. What is the outlook for the United States?

HARRIS: Well, best case is the vaccine could be cleared for emergency use at the end of next week. The first batches of vaccine could go out almost immediately to health care workers, and people in long care health facilities are also top of the priority list. But this will all unfold through the end of December and into January. And remember, it requires two shots. So this is not like flipping a switch. This will really take some time.

INSKEEP: Richard, thanks very much for the update.

HARRIS: Sure, Steve. Happy to do it.

INSKEEP: That's NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.