Matt Hancock has faced a backlash after claiming Brexit had helped the UK become the first country in the world to authorise a coronavirus vaccine.
The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has approved the jab developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, while the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has yet to do so for the EU.
The Health Secretary said the Europeans are “moving a little bit more slowly” but stressed that the vaccine had gone through the necessary safety checks to allow the UK to approve it.
MHRA chief June Raine said the approval was made using provisions under European law, which still binds the UK until the end of the year.
And German MEP Pieter Liese, a member of the European Parliament’s public health committee, said individual EU member states could have authorised the vaccine but had chosen to wait for the EMA to examine more information rather than follow the “hasty” UK example.
Mr Hancock told Times Radio: “The reason we’ve been able to move this fast, and the UK is the first country in the world to have a clinically authorised vaccine, the reason is twofold.
“Firstly, because the MRHA has done a great job of working with the company to look at that data as it’s come through and do things in parallel, rather than one after the other as they normally would, that’s the first reason.
“The second reason is because, whilst until earlier this year we were in the European Medicines Agency (EMA), because of Brexit we’ve been able to make a decision to do this based on the UK regulator, a world-class regulator, and not go at the pace of the Europeans, who are moving a little bit more slowly.
“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.”
But Dr Liese – a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party – said: “I consider this decision to be problematic and recommend that EU member states do not repeat the process in the same way.
“A few weeks of thorough examination by the EMA is better than a hasty emergency marketing authorisation of a vaccine.”
He suggested that the move could have been influenced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s domestic difficulties.
“Britain now has nearly 60,000 corona deaths. Add to this the fact that Britain is an island and has never been a Schengen member, which means open borders in Europe,” he said.
“Britain would have to compare itself more with countries like New Zealand or Ireland, which have a much better grip on the infection rate.”
The EMA suggested that it was imposing more stringent checks than the emergency process used by the MHRA.
A spokeswoman said “The temporary authorisation of the vaccine by the MHRA is not a marketing authorisation.
“It differs from marketing authorisations in the level of evidence submitted and checks required.”
The EMA believes that the conditional marketing authorisation (CMA) process is “the most appropriate regulatory mechanism for use in the current pandemic emergency”.
A CMA application is supported by “extensive data” submitted by companies and “provides a controlled and robust framework”.
BioNTech is a German firm and ministers’ attempts to portray the approval as a UK success story were criticised by the Berlin government.
Germany’s ambassador to the UK, Andreas Michaelis, attacked Business Secretary Alok Sharma’s claim that “in years to come, we will remember this moment as the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease”.
The diplomat said: “Why is it so difficult to recognise this important step forward as a great international effort and success?
“I really don’t think this is a national story.
“In spite of the German company, BioNTech, having made a crucial contribution, this is European and transatlantic.”
At a press briefing, MHRA chief Dr Raine said: “We have been able to authorise the supply of this vaccine using provisions under European law which exist until January 1.
“Our speed or our progress has been totally dependent on the availability of data in our rolling review and the independent advice we have received.”
Downing Street did not back Mr Hancock’s claim about Brexit.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “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.”
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