World Health Organisation (WHO) has granted emergency validation to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, thus paving the way for countries worldwide to quickly approve its import and distribution.
This is coming as over 83 million infections with the coronavirus have been confirmed worldwide, and over 1.8 million deaths.
Before now, medical staff have been hard hit, struggling to save patients even as their own colleagues have fallen ill with a disease almost nobody could have imagined a year ago.
Britain launched its inoculation drive with the US-German vaccine on December 8, with the United States, Canada and EU countries following suit.
WHO says the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the first to receive its “emergency validation” since the novel coronavirus first broke out in China a year ago.
“This is a very positive step towards ensuring global access to COVID-19 vaccines”, says Mariangela Simao, a top WHO official tasked with ensuring access to medicines.
“But I want to emphasise the need for an even greater global effort to achieve enough vaccine supply to meet the needs of priority populations everywhere”, she said in a statement.
WHO says its emergency use listing opens the way for regulators in different countries to approve the import and distribution of the vaccine.
It said it also enables UNICEF, which plays a key logistical role in distributing anti-COVID vaccines, and the Pan-American Health Organisation to procure the vaccine for countries that need it.
WHO convened its own experts and those from around the world to review the data on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine’s “safety, efficacy and quality,” weighing the benefits against the risks.
“The review found that the vaccine met the must-have criteria for safety and efficacy set out by WHO, and that the benefits of using the vaccine to address COVID-19 offset potential risks,” it said.
Reports however, say at the Casalpalocco COVID 3 Hospital on the outskirts of Rome doctors and nurses did not register the new year as they tended to 100 patients struggling with serious to critical illness as a result of coronavirus infections.
In one intensive care ward, all but one of a dozen beds were occupied. Medical staff calmly tended to patients lying in dimly lit rooms, dispensed medication, checked respiratory machines and filled in medical records.
“This particular one (New Year’s Eve) is a surreal night, as was Christmas, as will be the Epiphany, as was the past Easter and all the other holidays”, said Dr. Paolo Petrassi, the night shift coordinator. “They are, let’s say, holidays detached from what was the real world once, as we have known it forever.”
The 53-year-old recounted the experience now familiar to so many in the medical profession worldwide who have had to treat COVID patients: having to constantly monitor patients and manage their condition, with each having their own set of complicated problems.
“It was all unexpected”, Petrassi told The Associated Press.
Italy was the early epicenter of the pandemic in Europe in the spring. Images of Italian nurses and doctors, exhausted as they briefly removed their protective gear, became a grim portent of what would happen to their colleagues in Spain, France, the United States and elsewhere, months later.
Last month, after a summer in which Italy seemed to have beaten back the scourge, it again became the country with the highest death toll in Europe. And once more, the grim reality was reflected in the eyes of Italy’s medical staff.
“Now we are almost reaching the 12 months of this pandemic and unfortunately we still don’t have the possibility to say it’s over”, said Petrassi. “We only have the hope of the mass vaccination that, we hope, will contribute to control this ominous phenomenon.”
European regulators approved the first vaccine shortly before Christmas. Countries across the European Union began administering the shots on December 27, but it will be a long time before a sizeable number of the bloc’s 450 million inhabitants are immunised.
Experts say at least 60-70% of the population needs to be vaccinated to prevent the virus from getting a foothold.
Petrassi hopes the nightmare of COVID will end soon.
“We all live in uncertainty, but at the same time we hope, and we are all doing our best”, he said. “We are using all of our professional and physical resources, our knowledge, our conscience, giving up time with our families, ours and our beloved ones’ free time.”
“We are investing all this so that all these efforts will not be in vain.”