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U.K. Authorizes Coronavirus Vaccine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We begin this hour with big news out of the U.K. today - word that they will begin rolling out a COVID-19 vaccine there next week. Britain's health care regulator has approved the vaccine by Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech for emergency use. For more on what could prove a milestone in the fight against the coronavirus, we go to London and to NPR's Frank Langfitt.

Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So this is big news. It's also good news for once. How is it playing there?

LANGFITT: Optimism, at least if you talk to people who follow the vaccine - sort of way vaccines are developed. You know, the final clinical trial, it was 43,000 people. The company found that it was 95% effective. And only a tiny percentage of people had side effects, which - things like fatigue and headaches. Now, I was talking to a guy named Richard Hatchett. and he's based here in London. He runs the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. And they develop vaccines for infectious diseases, including COVID-19. And this was his take on the news.

RICHARD HATCHETT: I'm pretty excited. And I think the delivery of vaccines at this speed and with this degree of success is a tremendous testimonial to the power of science. I hope it will inspire people. And I hope it will give people hope.

KELLY: Frank, one question here in the U.S. has been over how fast these vaccines have come along, whether it might be too fast, whether they're rushed. Is that a conversation unfolding in Britain as well?

LANGFITT: I think people are struck by that. Normally, this is the kind of thing, Mary Louise, that would take four years. In this case, it's only been 10 months, which is remarkable. Companies did this with overlapping trials. Before they finished one trial, they started the next. Then they started manufacturing before they had all the data in. Now, the European Union, by contrast, is taking a slower approach. It's not going to decide on this vaccine until maybe December 29.

KELLY: All right. Well, in Britain, what is the rollout going to look like?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I think first they're going to focus on the most vulnerable - nursing homes and their caregivers. Nursing homes here, as you may remember, were really decimated. I believe we lost over 20,000 people - patients there. One of the tricky things with this vaccine is it has to be kept at minus 94 Fahrenheit. So the U.K. is going to distribute it through hospitals here first where they do have the ultra-cold freezers they need. But a bigger problem might be taking it into communities and also taking it into the developing world for other countries. And this was what - kind of what Richard Hatchett's concern is.

HATCHETT: It may be possible to deliver that vaccine in the United States and the United Kingdom, but delivering a vaccine with those cold chain requirements is going to present tremendous challenges in middle and lower-income countries where it's desperately needed as well.

KELLY: Frank, I know that England just came out of its second lockdown today. People are back on the streets, back out and about a little bit. What's been the reaction just among ordinary people to this news of the vaccine?

LANGFITT: Some people, as you would imagine, Mary Louise, they're delighted. Esther McIlhinney - she works for a non-profit organization in London. She was decorating a Christmas tree up from Oxford Circus. And this was her take on it.

ESTHER MCILHINNEY: I suppose it has been, like, a quick turnaround, but I think it's a good thing. I'm excited that the vaccination's, like, here. Yeah. We get to go back to, like, normal life because it's been a long time.

LANGFITT: But other people say they're not going to get vaccinated. There's a woman named Samira Ali. She's 18. She works as a fundraiser for a charity here. And she cited the false conspiracy theory that vaccines are really designed to implant microchips to track people.

SAMIRA ALI: I really don't believe in the vaccines. I feel like you see those trackers that they're putting in our skins and whatnot, I feel like it's just wrong.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's stress again, that is a false conspiracy theory. Absolutely no evidence for that.

LANGFITT: Absolutely.

KELLY: Does sound like there is work to be done there in Britain as well as here in the U.S. by public health officials to persuade people this will be safe. NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting there from London.

Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.