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Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine more than 94 per cent effective in the over 65s

Published: 18th November, 2020 at 15:35
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The companies are now seeking emergency approval to roll out the vaccine in the US.

The vaccine against COVID-19 being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is more than 94 per cent effective in the over 65s, the companies have announced after conducting their final efficacy analysis.


Pfizer-BioNTech are now seeking approval to roll out the vaccine in the US. If granted in the UK it is possible that vaccinations could begin early next year.

The findings are based on a study involving more than 41,000 participants across the globe and are in keeping with the results announced by US Company Moderna about the efficacy of their vaccine several days earlier.

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Of the 170 volunteers who developed COVID-19, just 8 had received the genuine BNT162b2 vaccine, suggesting that it provides robust protection. All of the 162 others who developed COVID-19 were given a placebo jab.

The data also suggests that the vaccine works equally well regardless of gender, race or ethnicity.

“The study results mark an important step in this historic eight-month journey to bring forward a vaccine capable of helping to end this devastating pandemic. We continue to move at the speed of science to compile all the data collected thus far and share with regulators around the world,” said Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer Chairman and CEO. “With hundreds of thousands of people around the globe infected every day, we urgently need to get a safe and effective vaccine to the world.”

Based on current projections, the companies expect to produce up to 50 million vaccine doses globally in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021.

The UK has pre-ordered 40 million doses and should get 10million of these in its first batch.

Pfizer and BioNTech plan to submit the efficacy and safety data from the study for peer-review in a scientific journal once analysis of the data is completed.

UK scientists have welcomed the news.

“Today’s update from Pfizer provides further encouraging news and more detail on the protection against disease that their vaccine is showing from this definitive phase III trial. The detail on achieving 94 per cent protection in the elderly participants in the trial is particularly excellent news,” said Prof Trudie Lang, Director, The Global Health Network, Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford.


“The company are reporting that they now have enough efficacy data to submit for approval from the regulatory authorities, who will undertake a detailed assessment of both the efficacy and safety data. We will need to wait and learn over time how long the protection lasts, and to see whether this vaccine can also prevent transmission – meanwhile, this vaccine does look likely to have a strong role immediately once it is approved in protecting health workers and the vulnerable from disease,” she added.

Reader Q&A: How do scientists develop vaccines for new viruses?

Asked by: Katherin Ardern

Vaccines work by fooling our bodies into thinking that we’ve been infected by a virus. Our body mounts an immune response, and builds a memory of that virus which will enable us to fight it in the future.

Viruses and the immune system interact in complex ways, so there are many different approaches to developing an effective vaccine. The two most common types are inactivated vaccines (which use harmless viruses that have been ‘killed’, but which still activate the immune system), and attenuated vaccines (which use live viruses that have been modified so that they trigger an immune response without causing us harm).

A more recent development is recombinant vaccines, which involve genetically engineering a less harmful virus so that it includes a small part of the target virus. Our body launches an immune response to the carrier virus, but also to the target virus.

Over the past few years, this approach has been used to develop a vaccine (called rVSV-ZEBOV) against the Ebola virus. It consists of a vesicular stomatitis animal virus (which causes flu-like symptoms in humans), engineered to have an outer protein of the Zaire strain of Ebola.

Vaccines go through a huge amount of testing to check that they are safe and effective, whether there are any side effects, and what dosage levels are suitable. It usually takes years before a vaccine is commercially available.

Sometimes this is too long, and the new Ebola vaccine is being administered under ‘compassionate use’ terms: it has yet to complete all its formal testing and paperwork, but has been shown to be safe and effective. Something similar may be possible if one of the many groups around the world working on a vaccine for the new strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is successful.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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