When the British government authorized Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine for mass use on Wednesday, it didn’t take long for backlash to arrive—first and foremost from the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the regulatory entity entrusted with vetting vaccines for the European Union (EU).
Not a day after the announcement, Al Jazeera reported that an EU spokesperson criticized the decision and called the EMA’s own authorization procedures “the most effective regulatory mechanism to grant all EU citizens’ access to a safe and effective vaccine.” Several European legislators also made a point of expressing their disapproval, with one calling the move “problematic” and recommending neighboring countries to not follow suit.
Pfizer and Moderna made history when they announced last month that their vaccine candidates—made using unprecedented mRNA technology—had demonstrated more than 90 percent efficacy in phase 3 clinical trials. The EMA has said previously that it will reach a decision regarding the Pfizer vaccine, which has yet to be cleared for emergency use in any country other than the United Kingdom, by December 29, while their verdict on the Moderna vaccine will likely arrive in early January. This stands in stark contrast to Britain’s ultra-expedient review, completed barely 10 days after Pfizer first publicized their results.
As of Wednesday, England has also ended its second national lockdown, allowing restaurants and gyms to reopen and weddings and religious gatherings to resume. While the newly lifted restrictions had driven the country’s case count down by about 30 percent, tens of thousands of new cases continue to be reported weekly and will only increase in number, especially with the winter holidays fast approaching. At this rate, Britain can expect to see a dramatic surge in infections arising around Christmas and christening the new year.
The one-two punch of premature reopening and hasty vaccine authorization is ill-advised, if not suspect. In times of crisis, especially with millions of lives on the line, the temptation to prioritize speed over safety can be difficult to resist—that well-trodden path of eschewing appraisal for action no matter the consequences, rather than hunkering down to ensure maximum harm reduction. But even a cursory cost-benefit analysis shows that only one faction stands to benefit from these maneuvers: Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party.
The prime minister has some of the best scientists and public health leaders in the world in his ear. He knows full well that a lockdown is still necessary, and that a vaccine approved now will take at least two months to have any discernible effect on the spread of disease. To make both moves in one fell swoop is to neglect the best interests of an unsuspecting public in favor of appeasing a zealous faction of conservative lawmakers. As the EU and EMA were so quick to point out, steamrolling regulatory protocols for a technology that has never been deployed at this scale could yield more risk than reward, especially with public confidence in vaccines so low. It also sets a worrying precedent for other world leaders—in particular President Donald Trump, whose administration has garnered a reputation for authorizing unproven or unreliable drug treatments for political clout.
Before rushing authorization and mounting a full-fledged vaccination campaign, health authorities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere must throw considerable weight behind not just a robust approval process, but repairing public acceptance and trust in vaccines. Former US presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush will be getting vaccinated on live television for this reason, but votes of confidence from figures outside the political establishment—scientists, celebrities, community leaders, and other thought leaders and influencers—are just as necessary. If governments don’t carefully consider and heed the concerns of their people when choosing how to proceed from here, they risk stripping one of our most tried and true instruments of pandemic control of its power. To do so would be at the peril of us all.