In milestone, FDA clears coronavirus vaccine from Pfizer, BioNTech for emergency use.
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday granted emergency authorization to Pfizer and BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine, clearing its use after a historic 10-month research sprint and a rapid review that culminated Thursday with the endorsement of an independent advisory committee.
With the vaccine's authorization, millions of vulnerable U.S. residents could soon have a shot at protection from a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and sickened millions. Daily case counts and deaths have hit new highs in the weeks following Thanksgiving and more than 100,000 people are currently hospitalized.
Initial supplies, however, are extremely limited, forcing public health officials to prioritize which groups should receive the vaccine first. Healthcare workers and nursing home residents, who have fallen ill and died from COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers, are expected to begin receiving the vaccine within days, as Pfizer began manufacturing while clinical trials were still underway.
Some 2.9 million doses are expected to be available initially, with the U.S. holding some in reserve to ensure people receive the second of two doses that vaccination requires.
"While not an FDA approval, today's emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine holds the promise to alter the course of this pandemic in the United States," said Peter Marks, director of the FDA division that reviews vaccines, in a statement.
Authorization of a vaccine within a year of scientists identifying the new coronavirus is a scientific milestone that, at the pandemic's outset, looked unattainable.
"In my wildest dreams, I thought it would be fast. But fast means, if it [typically] takes seven years, maybe you can get it down to a couple of years," said Anthony Fauci, in a Dec. 11 interview with the editor of JAMA. "Now it's our challenge to convince people that this wasn't rushed in a reckless way."
Yet the FDA has been under immense pressure to speed an approval and, on Friday, the Trump administration reportedly told agency head Stephen Hahn to submit his resignation if Pfizer and BioNTech's vaccine was not cleared by the end of the day. The vaccine was cleared by regulators in the U.K., Bahrain, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico earlier this month.
The emergency use authorization, a special type of approval used in public health crises, came one day after a panel of FDA advisers voted 17-4 to recommend use of the shot.
Two of the four "no" votes came from committee members who wanted to recommend the vaccine only for people aged 18 or older, rather than include 16- and 17-year olds as the FDA had advocated. The FDA's final decision authorized its use for people as young as 16.
The regulator, along with its advisers, was persuaded by a massive trial that enrolled 44,000 people and randomly assigned them to receive either Pfizer and BioNTech's vaccine or a placebo.