WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A panel of outside advisers to the United States Food and Drug Administration on Thursday (Dec 10) voted overwhelmingly to endorse emergency use of Pfizer Inc's coronavirus vaccine, paving the way for the agency to authorise the shot for a nation that has lost more than 285,000 lives to Covid-19.
The FDA is widely expected to authorise the vaccine, developed with German partner BioNTech SE, for emergency use in the US within days. Distribution and inoculations are expected to begin almost immediately thereafter.
The committee voted 17-4 that the known benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks of taking the shot for individuals 16 and older, with one member of the panel abstaining.
"This is a historic moment," Dr Eric Dickson, chief executive of UMass Memorial Health Care, who was not on the advisory panel, said after the vote. He called the vaccine "the best solution to get us out of our current situation and help us save lives".
Pfizer had asked that the two-dose vaccine be approved for use in people aged 16 to 85. Several advisory panel members discussed whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be included in the recommendation because the risk to these individuals is low, and the evidence in the trial was scant.
In the end, they voted on the question as put them by the FDA, which included 16 to 17 year olds.
"The final decision about whether to authorise the vaccine for emergency use will be made by FDA's career officials," the agency said in a statement.
The panel also discussed concerns raised by two reports of serious allergic reactions among vaccine recipients in Britain, and what to advise pregnant women, who were excluded in the study. Women of childbearing age comprise a large proportion of healthcare workers, who will be among those first in line to get the vaccine.
The FDA said during the panel meeting that there was not enough data to support or contradict use of the vaccine in pregnant women. The agency recommends that they make the decision on their own with advice from their doctors.
Dr Gregory Poland, a virologist from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who has previously served two terms on the FDA advisory panel, said he was surprised advisers did not voice more cautions about pregnant women, adding that the vote was otherwise as expected.
The advisers also spent a large portion of the meeting discussing Pfizer's plan to give volunteers who received a placebo in its trial the option to get the vaccine when they become eligible for it under recommendations set by state and local health officials.
Documents prepared by the FDA ahead of the meeting did not point out any new safety or efficacy issues, raising optimism that the US would soon follow Britain and Canada in authorising the vaccine.
Britain's health regulator on Wednesday advised some people with a history of anaphylaxis, an overreaction of the body's immune system related to medicine or food, to avoid the getting the vaccine.
FDA Commissioner Steven Hahn, ahead of Thursday's meeting, said the agency was carefully reviewing all the data on Pfizer's vaccine, including potential allergic reactions following the British warning.
He said the vaccine's label would include details about who the vaccine was recommended for - and who should not get it - if it is ultimately approved.
Pfizer and BioNTech last month said a two-dose regimen of the vaccine was 95 per cent effective in preventing illness from Covid-19, and detailed data released in the agency's documents showed the vaccine began showing some protection even before volunteers received a second dose.
The documents also disclosed data on safety including cases of Bell's palsy among volunteers in the placebo and vaccine groups, though it said the cases in the trial occurred at the same rate as in the general population. Other reactions included fever, fatigue and chills.