The National:

NEWS that the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine has been approved for use in the UK is extremely exciting and will bring hope to many.

The speed at which this has been achieved is truly impressive. Within a year of the first diagnosis of cases, scientists have used advances in genetic sequencing technology to identify an Achilles’ heel in the virus, and design vaccines against it to train our immune systems to fight the infection.

The vaccine uses novel technology where a small piece of genetic material known as mRNA is injected. This provides instructions for the body to make copies of the virus’s receptor molecule that it uses to infect our cells.

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The molecules that the vaccine makes train our immune systems to recognise these on the virus and kill it if we become infected. It does not contain the virus itself. Use of this technology is new in humans, and is exciting to immunologists as it may also be effective against many other deadly diseases.

Given the vaccine’s novelty, some may have safety concerns, but trial results offer us reassurance. Others may be anxious that use of this genetic material may lead to genetic manipulation of our own DNA, but this cannot happen. The mRNA molecule cannot integrate into the DNA in our chromosomes, and will be completely destroyed by our bodies soon after injection.

This announcement provides realistic hope that life will return to pre-pandemic normality. However, this will be a gradual change. Although the UK has ordered millions of vaccine doses, and the first 500,000 may be available in days, it is essential that these are given to the most vulnerable groups and their carers first. We also have to remember that each person has to receive two doses spread over a few weeks to achieve optimal immunity.

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Manufacturing millions of vaccines, co-ordinating their delivery and storage and the scheduling of injections for the entire UK population is a huge logistical task. As the vaccination programme is delivered, it will still be necessary to maintain social distancing, hand washing and similar measures to help reduce virus transmission. Many, especially those in the most vulnerable groups and on the front line, will soon receive their two doses, but many in the community will not and will still be susceptible until they do.

Others, despite reassurances on safety, may still choose not to be vaccinated and will be unprotected. Until vaccinated, individuals who become infected could still spread the virus to others awaiting their vaccines.

Tests show the vaccine was very effective at preventing people from developing symptoms of infection, but it will take some months until we know how good this is at preventing virus transmission.

So today’s news offers much for us to look forward to, but the restrictions are unlikely to be eased until towards the middle of 2021. The more people who become vaccinated, the sooner that may happen. It is essential we stay patient and maintain measures to prevent the spread of the virus in our communities.

Professor Neil A Mabbott is Personal Chair in Immunopathology at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute & Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.