How does the Pfizer vaccine work?

A new Covid-19 vaccine from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, working with German biotech company BioNTech, has been approved for use in the UK.

– Is this a reason to celebrate?

Yes. Analysis shows the vaccine can prevent 95% of people from getting Covid-19, including 94% in older age groups.

The vaccine has been tested on 43,500 people in six countries and no safety concerns were raised.

Approval means the UK can begin rolling out the vaccine to those most in need, including frontline NHS workers.

– What type of vaccine is this?

The jab is known as a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine.

Conventional vaccines are produced using weakened forms of the virus, but mRNAs use only the virus’s genetic code.

An mRNA vaccine is injected into the body where it enters cells and tells them to create antigens.

These antigens are recognised by the immune system and prepare it to fight coronavirus.

– What are the advantages of this type of vaccine?

No actual virus is needed to create an mRNA vaccine. This means the rate at which it can be produced is dramatically accelerated.

How the RNA vaccine would work
(PA Graphics)

As a result, mRNA vaccines have been hailed as potentially offering a rapid solution to new outbreaks of infectious diseases.

In theory, they can also be modified reasonably quickly if, for example, a virus develops mutations and begins to change.

mRNA vaccines are also cheaper to produce than traditional vaccines, although both will play an important role in tackling Covid-19.

One downside to mRNA vaccines is that they need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures and cannot be transported easily.

– Are they safe?

All vaccines undergo rigorous testing and have oversight from experienced regulators.

UPDATE: We are proud to announce, along with @BioNTech_Group, that our mRNA-based #vaccine candidate has, at an interim analysis, demonstrated initial evidence of efficacy against #COVID19 in participants without prior evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

— Pfizer Inc. (@pfizer) November 9, 2020

Some believe mRNA vaccines are safer for the patient as they do not rely on any element of the virus being injected into the body.

mRNA vaccines have been tried and tested in the lab and on animals before moving to human studies.

The human trials of mRNA vaccines – involving tens of thousands of people worldwide – have been going on since early 2020 to show whether they are safe and effective.

Pfizer will continue to collect safety and long-term outcomes data from participants for two years.

– Do we have enough doses to vaccinate the UK population?

The UK has secured 40 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, with 10 million due in the UK by the end of the year.

Patients need two doses, meaning not enough shots have been secured for the entire UK population.

However, it is likely other vaccines, including one from Oxford University, will be approved in the coming weeks and months.

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