America’s leading infectious diseases scientist, Anthony Fauci, has apologised for implying that he thought Britain’s drug regulator had rushed through its coronavirus vaccine approval.
His comments came a day after Britain became the first country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for general use, prompting some scepticism among European neighbours and suggestions of politicisation.
Fauci, who leads the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the BBC: “I have a great deal of confidence in what the UK does both scientifically and from a regulator standpoint.
“Our process is one that takes more time than it takes in the UK. And that’s just the reality,” he said, adding: “I did not mean to imply any sloppiness even though it came out that way.”
Fauci had earlier described Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) as having “ran around the corner of the marathon and joined it in the last mile” and “rushed through that approval”.
He contrasted that with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which he said had been careful to avoid “cutting corners” because it did not want to fuel vaccine scepticism.
“In fact, they were even rather severely criticised by their European Union counterparts who were saying, you know, ‘That was kind of a hotdog play’,” Fauci had said.
Fauci made his original comments ahead of his first meeting with Joe Biden, after which the president-elect confirmed the doctor – who endured a difficult relationship with Donald Trump – would stay on as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and appointed him as chief medical adviser.
June Raine, the head of the MHRA, had previously insisted that “no corners had been cut” in vetting the vaccine.
The deputy chief medical officer for England, Jonathan Van-Tam, also hit back at critics, telling the BBC: “If you’re a regulator who’s slightly further behind, what do you say to justify your position that you are further behind? Words such as the ones we’ve heard perhaps.”
Britain’s MHRA was also praised on Wednesday by Moncef Slaoui, a former pharmaceutical executive turned chief adviser to the US government’s Operation Warp Speed programme to develop Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.
He told reporters on a call that the British agency was on a par with the FDA as the world’s best regulator and described it as being the “scientific engine” of the European Medicines Agency before Britain left that organisation following Brexit.
An advisory panel of the FDA is holding a public meeting on 11 December to evaluate the same vaccine, and approval could follow shortly after.
The EU for its part has insisted the bloc has not fallen behind.
Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, addressing a videoconference of his EU colleagues, said on Wednesday: “The idea is not to be first, but to have a safe and efficient vaccine.
“It is a matter of expertise, obviously, authorisation. But as we’ve seen from comments from the UK, it’s also a political issue for the European Union.”