The UK has become the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, with the rollout expected to start as soon as next week.
But the groundbreaking announcement, which has provided light at the end of the tunnel, has prompted a carnival of wild claims, distortions and flat-out lies. Here are some of the most outlandish – and whether there’s a scintilla of truth to the assertions (spoiler alert: not really).
Claim: The Brexit dividend
Source: The government
Straight out of the gate, the UK government was anxious to wrap the announcement in a Union flag.
Matt Hancock ramped up the rhetoric by suggesting that “because of Brexit” the UK has been able approve the vaccine more quickly than if it was an EU member.
“We do all the same safety checks and the same processes, but we have been able to speed up how they’re done because of Brexit,” the health secretary said on Wednesday morning.
Sure, the EU has yet to approve the vaccine for use in member states. But his claim was quickly shot down by the UK’s own regulator – the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) – which actually granted the temporary authorisation of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab for use in the UK. It explained the move was possible under an existing carve-out granted to the UK, so Brexit made no difference.
“We have been able to authorise the supply of this vaccine using provisions under European law which exist until January 1,” June Raine, chief executive of MHRA, told a Downing Street briefing.
And Downing Street wasn’t keen to go there.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “The MHRA is globally recognised for requiring the highest standards of quality, safety and medicines regulation and the public should be sure that the vaccine is safe for use.
“It is clear that we are the first country in the world to approve this vaccine and it is incredibly positive news that we will be able to start to distribute it.”
Claim: We are the champions!
Source: The government
The jingoism continued thanks to business secretary Alok Sharma.
He tweeted: “The UK was the first country to sign a deal with Pfizer/BioNTech, now we will be the first to deploy their vaccine.
“To everyone involved in this breakthrough: thank you.”
The minister seemed particularly effusive about the UK’s role in this momentous first, despite the fact that the actual British vaccine – a joint venture between Oxford Uni and AstraZeneca – has not yet been approved, and there are questions over some of its trial data.
Undeterred by these details, Sharma added: “In years to come, we will remember this moment as the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease.”
Let’s remember Pfizer is a huge American pharma company and BioNTech is a small German firm, so calling the UK’s rapid stroke of a pen “leading humanity’s charge against this disease” might be slightly overstating things.
And approving drugs is what the MHRA does every day. A Freedom of Information request in 2015 found it had approved 978 medicines and healthcare products that year alone.
The “win” is also a quirk of different systems: American regulators pore over raw data from vaccine makers to validate their results, while in Britain and elsewhere in Europe they lean more heavily on a company’s own data.
Claim: Thalidomide is a remotely relevant comparison
Naturally, the online swamp had its own interpretation of the news as “Thalidomide” began trending on Twitter.
Opponents of the vaccine – anti-vaxxers – compared it to a drug marketed as a treatment for morning sickness in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The drug was later found to cause birth defects.
But the Thalidomide Society swiftly stepped in, saying that comparisons between the coronavirus vaccine and the scandal are “insulting”.
Dr Ruth Blue, consultant for the Thalidomide Society, said it was “a bit insulting that suddenly Thalidomide gets remembered after all these years when it suits anti-vaxxers to have something to compare to”.
However, she stressed that “it isn’t a comparison”.
The society was formed in 1962 by parents of the children affected by the drug.
Although Thalidomide did initially pass safety tests in animals, proper tests were not performed and it was never tested on pregnant animals.
The drug was never approved for sale in the USA because the Food and Drug Administration felt that not enough testing had taken place.
Dr Blue said: “The reason Thalidomide caused impairments in children is because it wasn’t tested properly. This was a long time ago.
“The outcome of Thalidomide completely changed the way drugs are tested and are passed.”
She continued: “It’s very unfair because these are people now mostly in their early 60s, a few in their late 50s, and they have been living with the effects of Thalidomide for all this time, without anybody paying much attention really, apart from in the early days.
“Now suddenly they are top of the pile because there is a campaign people have against having the vaccine.”
Claim: Care home residents will get it first
Source: The government
There are also questions about who is first in line for the vaccine. The disease has killed 70,000 people in the UK within less than a year.
Elderly people in care homes and care home workers are first on the priority list to receive the vaccine as determined by the UK government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
But ministers are facing questions about the delivery of the vaccine to care homes due to the very cold temperatures at which it needs storing. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept below -70C.
In Wales, the health and social care minister Vaughan Gething said it would be difficult to vaccinate vulnerable care home residents – and some might not get the jab.
He told the Senedd: “Some care home residents therefore won’t be within the first few weeks of delivery of that vaccine.
“That is a challenge and that means that care home residents, who are right at the top of the vulnerability list, we’re not going to be able to deliver the vaccine to them.”
Later on Wednesday, the head of NHS England admitted the delivery of the vaccine to care homes cannot happen yet.
Sir Simon Stevens explained that the vaccine comes in packs of 1,950 doses (that is, double doses for 975 people), which means it cannot be distributed to the thousands of care homes across England with smaller numbers of residents.
And the government is not permitted to split the packs into smaller deliveries until the regulator approves it.
Stevens told a Downing Street briefing: “If the MHRA, the independent regulator, give approval for a safe way of splitting these packs of 975 doses, then the good news that we will be able to start distributing those to care homes.”
Stevens said the rollout of the vaccine was “logistically complicated”. It will therefore initially be rolled out to 50 “hospital hubs” around the country, which will start to offer jabs to over-80s, for example those with outpatient appointments next week, and care home staff.
When the Oxford vaccine was approved for use, it would be a better option as it could be more easily stored.
Claim: The speed of approval raises concerns
It is true that most vaccines usually take several years to be developed, and questions have been raised about the short timeframe.
However, as deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam explained, this is usually because they are produced by companies which make an “investment decision about whether to move on” at each stage.
“But with Covid vaccines it is clear that we have a global public health emergency on our hands and that even waiting five years for a Covid vaccine if we don’t have to is completely the wrong thing to do.”
He said this meant the “shackles had come off in terms of investing”, and that governments such as the UK had invested hundreds of millions of pounds “to try and speed it (vaccine development) up”.
The standards for safety and effectiveness have not, however, changed due to the speed of production and testing – and it is still subject to independent regulation. In the UK’s case, this comes from the MHRA.
Claim: Bill Gates is, er, using the vaccine to microchip people
Source: Take a guess
Probably the biggest of the whoppers: Bill Gates is using the vaccine to secretly microchip the world.
Gates is regularly the subject of conspiracy theories due to his charity’s work in vaccine development.
There is unsurprisingly no evidence that the Microsoft founder, or anyone else, is trying to implant microchips in anyone through vaccines. Gates has also repeatedly denied these claims.
The conspiracy theory may have originated from a December study published by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The study was funded, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The team had developed an “approach to encode medical history on a patient” by including a small amount of dye with a vaccine.
But it never experimented on humans and did not include any hardware technology, such as microchips.