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“Help is on the way,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced Wednesday morning, after UK regulators granted emergency authorization for a vaccine made by US pharma giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

The announcement means the UK has vaulted past the United States and European Union in the race to approve a vaccine, months into a pandemic that has killed almost 1.5 million people worldwide.

“We believe it is really the start of the end of the pandemic,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told CNN in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla hailed the emergency authorization as “a historic moment in the fight against Covid-19.”

The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine — enough to vaccinate 20 million people. Hancock told the BBC that an initial 800,000 doses would be delivered from Pfizer’s facilities in Belgium to the UK next week, and “many millions” more before the end of the year.

Elderly people in care homes, those who care for them, health workers and other vulnerable people will be top of the priority list.

The vaccine has been rolled out at extraordinary speed, from conception to approval in around 11 months, according to BioNTech. The process usually takes years. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the news “fantastic” in a tweet, adding that “it’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again.”

The UK health department said the approval “follows months of rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data” by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which had “concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness.”

MHRA chief Dr. June Raine insisted that “no corners have been cut” during a news conference Wednesday. Raine said the clinical trials were “overlapping” to progress the process faster. “Separate teams have been working in parallel to deliver this review,” she added.

“Good news, we have a vaccine that is safe and effective,” Vaccine and Immunization committee chair Wei Shen Lim added.

How the vaccine will be rolled out

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine employs a new approach to making vaccines that uses a piece of genetic material called messenger RNA to prompt the body to make synthetic pieces of the coronavirus and stimulate an immune response. But mRNA is very fragile, so the vaccine must be kept at ultracold temperatures, meaning special storage equipment is required.

Speaking to Sky News, Hancock said there would be “a combination of three modes of delivery.” The first will be hospitals, with 50 set up to handle the vaccine and waiting to receive doses. This will be followed by vaccination centers, which he said were being set up now, before a “community rollout” including doctors’ offices and pharmacists.

But he noted the need for the Pfizer vaccine to be stored at minus-70 degree Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit) temperatures — unlike Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which has not yet been approved.

“They’ll [doctors and pharmacists] also be there should the AstraZeneca vaccine be approved, because that doesn’t have these cold storage requirements and so is operationally easier to roll out, but I just want to thank all of the scientists at BioNTech and Pfizer, who are manufacturing this who we’ve worked so closely with.”

The rollout will start with people in nursing homes and their carers, followed by those aged 80 and over and frontline health and social workers. It will then filter down to the general public by age, with older groups coming first. Individuals with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus will be able to receive the shot after the over-65 group is vaccinated.

“It’s according to clinical need,” Hancock told the BBC. “The goal is to save as many lives as possible and stop hospitalizations.” Hancock urged Britons to listen to doctors, nurses and “expert voices, those who’ve been involved in this program and listen to the independent regulator.”

Hancock also noted that the vaccine has to be given in two doses 21 days apart, so the process will take time. The vaccine should be available at designated sites in England, seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. including holidays, the UK health department has instructed the national public health agency.

The brief said the ambition was “to safely vaccinate the maximum number of patients in the minimum amount of time” across a range of centers. Practices will be told to deliver “a minimum” of 975 vaccinations per week and to assume each person will need to return for a second dose.

At a news conference with BioNTech executives in Mainz, Germany, Sahin said full immunity against Covid-19 would occur seven days after a patient’s second dose.

Sean Marett, BioNTech’s chief commercial officer, said doses for the UK were currently being packed very quickly at the Pfizer facility in Belgium. Thermoboxes are being packed with between 1,000-5,000 doses, which they will ship by truck or plane. The boxes are temperature controlled with a tracker to provide minute-by-minute updates before delivery to a site for distribution.

Marett said the companies hoped to have 50 million doses ready by the end of December. “The UK like every country gets a fair proportion,” he said, adding that 100 million doses are committed to the US, 200 million to the EU and 40 million to the UK.

Speaking to CNN after the news conference, Sahin raised the possibility of herd immunity by next autumn.

“I personally believe with a number of companies now reaching the approval in the next few months, we might be able to deliver a sufficient number of doses until the end of summer 2021 to reach the 60 to 70% of coverage, which could give us the relief to have a normal winter in 2021.”

More vaccines on the way

The UK approval will be a welcome moment for the government, which has been roundly criticized for a string of failures that have contributed to a death toll of nearly 60,000 — Europe’s highest.

But officials were quick to warn that the threat was far from over.

“To aid the success of the vaccination program it is vital everyone continues to play their part and abide by the necessary restrictions in their area so we can further suppress the virus and allow the NHS to do its work without being overwhelmed,” a spokesperson from the UK health department said in a statement.

Meadows to meet with FDA chief as Trump asks about status of vaccine emergency approval

The news of the UK authorization could also cause a bit of a stir in the United States. Earlier this week, President Donald Trump privately demanded to know why the Food and Drug Administration hadn’t granted emergency use for Pfizer’s vaccine yet, two sources told CNN.

BioNTech and Pfizer submitted their vaccine candidate to the FDA in mid-November, and the regulator’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee is due to meet on December 10 to consider authorization. They have also submitted their candidate to the EU’s European Medicines Agency, which is set to deliver a verdict later in December.

Another vaccine, from US biotech firm Moderna, is awaiting approval in various countries, including the US and UK. The company expects to have 20 million doses available in the US by the end of the year and 500 million to 1 billion in 2021. The UK has secured 7 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine, which is set to be available in Europe in spring 2021. Moderna has also submitted its vaccine to the EMA in Europe, which will look at it on January 12.

Claudia Otto, Josefine Ohema and Mick Krever contributed to this report.

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)


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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers

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Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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