TURIN — What is there to say? Let's give the UK and its Prime Minister Boris Johnson the satisfaction of being the first country to have approved a COVID-19 vaccine and to start mass inoculation. The news broke on Wednesday, when the UK government announced that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had been fully approved, beating even the US across the finishing line, and the country would start to deploy it within days.
The announcement was accompanied by the kind of enthusiastic nationalism and triumphalism that we had expected, with Brexit less than a month away. After all, just a couple of weeks ago, it emerged that the UK government had also unsuccessfully tried to add themselves to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine under development.
Alok Sharma, UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, declared this to be a historic event on Twitter on Wednesday. He said that the British vaccine approval will go down "as the day the UK led humanity's charge against the disease." He and other UK ministers were painting this as a national, British narrative — a D-Day of sorts — not a European and transatlantic achievement. An understandably outraged German ambassador to the UK pointed this out in a tweet, asking why it was so difficult to recognize the development as a great international effort and success. After all, the vaccine was produced by a US and a German company founded by migrants of Turkish origins.
But in this story – in which politics, medicine, science, the pharmaceutical industry and many other strands are all intertwined – the voice of European cooperation is drowned out by the Brexiter voice of "xenophobia and petty nationalism," as the former Labour minister Lord Andrew Adonis said. Adonis also confirmed his opinion by tweeting: "Pitiful watching Hancock & Johnson claim that Brexit means we are getting the vaccine faster. Like Trump claiming he had won the election."
This isn't some race among nations for who can claim victory. Each country must decide how to roll out the vaccines by themselves. Italy, for example, is waiting until early January to deploy a vaccine. Speaking to Parliament on Wednesday, Health Minister Roberto Speranza rightly called for caution, reminding Italian MPs that no vaccine has received approval from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) or the US Food and Drug Administration so far. In unusually harsh tones, the EMA made it clear that its approval procedure is longer and more thorough than the British one, saying it requires more evidence and checks.
British authorities have come out to justify their coup d'état
Of course, the British authorities have come out to justify their coup d'état, saying that British regulatory body, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), has conducted rigorous clinical studies and extensive data analysis for months. Yet some doubts still remain about the UK fast-tracked vaccine's safety, quality and efficacy, considering that the decision to release it was taken as part of an ultra-fast emergency approval process, which allowed the MHRA to temporarily authorize the vaccine just ten days after beginning to review data from large-scale studies.
How important is it, we should ask ourselves, that the first country in the world to give the green light to a COVID-19 vaccine is outside of the EU? What effect will this have in helping the British population forget its disastrous management in the initial phases of the pandemic?
The spokesman of the European Commission, the EU executive, explained that the EMA procedure is the most effective regulatory mechanism to guarantee all European citizens get access to a safe and effective vaccine because it is based on further evidence. An extraordinary meeting will be held in the next few days to approve the wider EU distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. We can only hope that it isn't coming this fast as a direct response to pressure from the British government's announcement — nothing could be riskier at such a crucial time.
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