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Who's next as governments approve vaccines?

December 12, 2020

The first coronavirus vaccines have been administered in Britain and elsewhere. The European Union will begin announcing decisions by the end of December.

Needles show a mock coronavirus vaccine
The first patients are inoculated, but many questions remain about vaccine distributionImage: picture-alliance/Sven Simon

On December 8, the United Kingdom administered the first doses of the vaccine developed by BioNTech-Pfizer. Britain secured 40 million doses of the vaccine and has already begun inoculations. The government has announced its intent to have "a portfolio of three or four vaccines" ready to deploy by the middle of 2021. Officials also reserved doses from AstraZeneca, a Swedish-British pharmaceutical company that conducted widespread testing within Britain.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has announced its intent to decide on the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine by December 29 and another from the US firm Moderna by January 12. The European Union's process is slower than that of the UK because the EU has declined to issue emergency approvals — thus requiring a longer testing period to determine the safety and efficacy of the drugs before allowing them to be used. 

The slower unified approach of the European Union's 27 member states allows the EU to acquire vaccines at lower costs and ensure prompt delivery upon approval. So far, the bloc has signed contracts with AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech, CureVac, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Sanofi-GlaxoSmithKline. If all of these vaccines were to be approved, that would give the European Union up to 2 billion doses for 450 million residents. Most vaccines will require a second dose, but the excess would be made available to impoverished countries outside of the bloc.

Distribution would be according to population. Therefore, Germany, whose 83 million people constitute 18.6% of the total EU population, would get 18.6% of available doses. 

Although EU laws prohibit individual member states from signing separate direct contracts with companies, not all have obeyed, with Germany, for example, inking its own deals with producers. Media reports suggest that Germany's federal government may have secured as many as 30 million extra doses from BioNTech-Pfizer.  

Deutschland Haar | Corona Impfstoff | Testung
Pfizer is distributing the vaccine developed by the German company BioNTechImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Hoemann

First US vaccine

Under reported pressure from President Donald Trump, on Friday the US's Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval to the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine. FDA reviewers had given their endorsement to approve the drug on Thursday. The US Department of Health and Human Services has announced that approval will allow hospitals and nursing homes to use the BioNTech vaccine — of which the US secured 100 million doses — immediately. 

The FDA also plans a vote on a request for approval for a vaccine from Moderna on December 17. If approved, this would give the US — the country with the world's highest number of coronavirus cases at 16 million — two vaccines before Christmas. Authorities say they intend to vaccinate as many as 20 million people by the end of December. 

In China, an emergency program set up by the ruling Communist Party has allowed more than 1 million people to be immunized with vaccines from domestic pharmaceutical companies such as SinoVac and SinoPharm. With infection rates remaining low in the country where the deadly virus likely began its spread, Chinese firms are carrying out tests in dozens of countries, including as Brazil, Indonesia, Serbia and Turkey.

Moderna logo
The European Union will decide on Moderna's vaccine by January 12Image: Bill Sikes/AP Photo/picture alliance

Russia's Sputnik V 

Made in pandemic-hit Russia, the Sputnik V vaccine was approved in August and rolled out in the capital, Moscow, with much aplomb in early December. After the country was especially hard hit by the pandemic, Russian officials claim to be the first to have developed an effective vaccine — though approval came before the final phase of testing.

Russia also gave approval for the testing of a vaccine candidate from China. About 8,000 Russians will participate in clinical studies undertaken by the Chinese pharmaceutical manufacturer CanSinoBIO.

Kremlin officials expressed optimism that more than 1 billion doses of Sputnik V could be produced during the next year. However, it is unclear which countries might want to try a vaccine that has not undergone independent testing. So far, Hungary is the only EU country to where officials have expressed an interest in importing a large supply of the drug or perhaps even producing a domestic version. 

Turkey has secured 50 million doses of coronavirus vaccine from SinoVac. The Chinese company tested its CoronaVac serum on thousands of Turks prior to the order, and Turkish media report that inoculations are to commence in December. The Health Ministry is also in negotiations for the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine. The company's founders, Drs. Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin, grew up in Germany with parents from Turkey. Turkey is currently registering a record of more than 30,000 new COVID-19 cases each day.

The World Health Organization has pledged to aid impoverished countries that lack the financial means to place direct vaccine orders with pharmaceutical companies. The global agency's COVAX program seeks to distribute 2 billion doses by the end of 2021 to provide such countries with equitable access to effective vaccines. The nine candidates in the program include the vaccines from AstraZeneca and Moderna — but BioNTech-Pfizer's is not one of them. The initial COVAX shipments will only allow about 20% of the population to be vaccinated across Africa, which would force governments to seek credit and funding from the World Bank and the African Export-Import Bank. 

This article has been adapted from German.