FDA OKs emergency use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine


The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in people 16 years of age and older.

The much-anticipated emergency use authorization (EUA) of this vaccine — the first such approval in the United States — was greeted with optimism by infectious disease and pulmonary experts, although unanswered questions remain regarding use in people with allergic hypersensitivity, safety in pregnant women, and how smooth distribution will be.

“I am delighted. This is a first, firm step on a long path to getting this COVID pandemic under control,” William Schaffner, MD, professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, said in an interview.

The FDA gave the green light after the December 10 recommendation from the agency’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) meeting. The committee voted 17-4 in favor of the emergency authorization.

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The COVID-19 vaccine is “going to have a major impact here in the US. I’m very optimistic about it,” Dial Hewlett, MD, a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of American (IDSA), told this news organization.

Daniel Culver, DO, chair of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, is likewise hopeful. “My understanding is that supplies of the vaccine are already in place in hubs and will be shipped relatively quickly. The hope would be we can start vaccinating people as early as next week.”

Allergic reactions reported in the UK

After vaccinations with the Pfizer vaccine began in the UK on December 8, reports surfaced of two healthcare workers who experienced allergic reactions. They have since recovered, but officials warned that people with a history of severe allergic reactions should not receive the Pfizer vaccine at this time.

“For the moment, they are asking people who have had notable allergic reactions to step aside while this is investigated. It shows you that the system is working,” Schaffner said.

Both vaccine recipients who experienced anaphylaxis carried EpiPens, as they were at high risk for allergic reactions, Hewlett said. Also, if other COVID-19 vaccines are approved for use in the future, people allergic to the Pfizer vaccine might have another option, he added.

Reassuring role models

Schaffner supports the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) decision to start vaccinations with healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

“Vaccinating healthcare workers, in particular, will be a model for the general public,” said Schaffner, who is also a former member of the IDSA board of directors. “If they see those of us in white coats and blue scrubs lining up for the vaccine, that will provide confidence.”

To further increase acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine, public health officials need to provide information and reassure the general public, Schaffner said.

Hewlett agreed. “I know there are a lot of people in the population who are very hesitant about vaccines. As infection disease specialists and people in public health, we are trying to allay a lot of concerns people have.”

Reassurance will be especially important in minority communities. “They have been disproportionately affected by the virus, and they have a traditional history of not being optimally vaccinated,” Schaffner said. “We need to reach them in particular with good information and reassurance…so they can make good decisions for themselves and their families.”

No vaccine is 100% effective or completely free of side effects. “There is always a chance there can be adverse reactions, but we think for the most part this is going to be a safe and effective vaccine,” said Hewlett, medical director at the Division of Disease Control and deputy to commissioner of health at the Westchester County Department of Health in White Plains, New York.


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