The European Medicines Agency drug regulator says it is recommending the BioNTech and Pfizer vaccine to be licensed for use for people over 16 years of age, with some exceptions.

A vial of the Pfizer vaccine against the coronavirus disease is seen in West Hartford, Connecticut, US, December 18, 2020.
A vial of the Pfizer vaccine against the coronavirus disease is seen in West Hartford, Connecticut, US, December 18, 2020. (Reuters)

The European Medicines Agency has recommended conditional approval for a coronavirus vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer to be used across the European Union.

The decision comes weeks after the shot was first granted permission under emergency provisions in Britain and the United States.

Following a closed-doors expert meeting on Monday, the EU drug regulator said it was recommending the shot be licensed for use in people over 16 years of age, with some exceptions. The pharmaceutical companies will need to submit follow-up data on their vaccine for the next year.

“This is really a historic scientific achievement," said Emer Cooke, the head of the agency. “It is a significant step forward in our fight against the pandemic.”

The approval needs to be rubber-stamped by the EU's executive branch on Monday evening, a move its chief said is likely to happen Monday evening.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the EMA's approval was “a decisive moment."

READ MORE: EU sets Pfizer vaccine price at $18.90 per dose

European countries eager to begin vaccination

Authorities in Germany and several other European countries have said they hope to begin vaccinating people on Dec. 27.

“Today is a particularly personal and emotional day for us at BioNTech,” said Ugur Sahin, the company’s Turkish-German chief executive and co-founder. “Being in the heart of the EU, we are thrilled to be one step closer to potentially delivering the first vaccine in Europe to help combat this devastating pandemic.”

“We are standing by ready to start the delivery of initial vaccine doses across the EU as soon as we get the green light,” Sahin said.

The European regulator came under heavy pressure last week from countries calling for the vaccine to be granted approval for use as quickly as possible. 

EMA originally set Dec. 29 as the date for its evaluation of the vaccine made by Germany-based BioNTech, but moved up the meeting to Monday after calls from the German government and other countries for the agency to move more quickly.

The vaccine has already been given some form of regulatory authorization in at least 15 countries.

READ MORE: Poor countries might not have access to a Covid-19 vaccine until 2022

Benefits outweighed risks

Britain, Canada and the US authorised the vaccine to be used according to emergency provisions, meaning the shot is an unlicensed product whose temporary use is justified by the pandemic that has killed almost 1.7 million people worldwide to date, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Switzerland became the first country Saturday to authorise the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine according to the normal licensing procedure. 

EMA approval also follows the regular process, only on an accelerated schedule and under the condition that the pharmaceutical companies submit follow-up data on their vaccine for the next year.

In a statement last week that appeared to address concerns by some in Europe about the speed of the process, the agency stressed that the vaccine would only be approved after a scientific assessment showed its overall benefits outweighed the risks.

“A vaccine’s benefits in protecting people against Covid-19 must be far greater than any side effect or potential risks,” it said.

Scientists are still waiting for more long-term follow-up data to see how long immunity from the vaccines lasts and if there are any rare or serious side effects. 

Final testing of the vaccine is still ongoing; more information on whether the shot works in children is needed, in addition to its effects on pregnant women.

READ MORE: US regulator investigates allergic reactions to Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

The vaccine is not made with the coronavirus itself, meaning there’s no chance anyone could catch it from the shots. Instead, the vaccine contains a piece of genetic code that trains the immune system to recognise the spiked protein on the surface of the virus.

BioNTech and Pfizer offered the EU 400 million doses of the vaccine, but the bloc's executive Commission chose to buy only 200 million doses, with an option for 100 million more.

The EMA plans to hold a meeting on Jan. 12 to decide if the coronavirus vaccine made by Moderna should be licensed. It has reviews ongoing for a shot developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca and another from Janssen, but neither of those have made a formal request for the EMA to approve their vaccine.

READ MORE: Moderna Covid-19 vaccine doses shipped out in US

Source: TRTWorld and agencies