Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, has apologised for remarks that seemed to criticise the UK’s vaccine approval process.
Fauci, who at one stage of the pandemic said “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask” had been ridiculed online and by many in the UK and has retracted his comments when many pointed out his lack of knowledge and evidence for them.
“I have a great deal of confidence in what the UK does both scientifically and from a regulator standpoint,” Dr Fauci told the BBC on Thursday.
The UK on Wednesday became the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine for the coronavirus.
It has defended the rapid approval and said the jab is safe and effective.
Dr Fauci on Wednesday had told Fox News that the UK did not review the vaccine “as carefully” as US health regulators. He later told CBS News that the UK had “rushed” the approval.
On Thursday, he walked back the comments, and said there was “no judgement on the way the UK did it”.
“Our process is one that takes more time than it takes in the UK. And that’s just the reality,” Dr Fauci told the BBC. “I did not mean to imply any sloppiness even though it came out that way.”
Dr June Raine, the head of the UK medicines regulator, on Wednesday said that “no corners had been cut” in vetting the vaccine. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) reviewed preliminary data on the vaccine trials dating back to June.
“No vaccine would be authorised for supply in the UK unless the expected standards of safety, quality and efficacy are met,” the regulator said.
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.
Professor Evans, who is professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an expert on clinical trials, also piled on the criticism of Fauci, he told Sky News that Dr Fauci was mistaken. “I suspect Dr Fauci doesn’t necessarily know all the details of the MHRA procedures,” said Prof Evans. I respect him enormous…. but he is not a regulator, he is a researcher… His criticism, I don’t think, has a great deal of validity.”
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.” He went on to add he was “very confident” in the MHRA.
He said there was more than “100 years of medical experience” between the UK regulator and the committee advising which groups of people are vaccinated first.
And UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson attributed the UK’s expedited process to the regulator’s “brilliant clinicians”.
Dr Fauci’s embarrassing remarks come as the US surpasses 14 million total Covid-19 infections, with a recorded 274,648 deaths.
The top doctor has said he believed that the US would have vaccine approval soon.
The FDA plans to meet on 10 December to discuss approval for the UK-approved vaccine, which was created through a partnership between Pfizer and BioNTech.
They will meet again on 17 December to discuss a second vaccine – Moderna – request.
Dr Fauci had described the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval process, slower than the UK, as the “gold standard”. On Thursday he clarified, saying the US does “things a little differently” than the UK. He maintains this claim despite the FDA having numerous scandals in it’s past, approving hydroxychloroquine for emergency use for Covid before having to backtrack, as well as being chiefly responsible for America’s opioid epidemic and over 400,000 American deaths.
“That’s all,” he said. “Not better, not worse, just differently.”
The EU, meanwhile, is eyeing a 29 December meeting of the European Medicines Agency to determine if there is adequate safety data on the vaccine for it to be approved in Europe. This timeline puts the EU weeks behind both the UK and US. After the agency approves the vaccine, it will probably also need a sign-off from the EU Commission.
Also on Thursday, Dr Fauci met members of President-elect Joe Biden’s team to discuss the incoming administration’s response to the pandemic.
Mr Biden later told CNN that he would retain Dr Fauci as chief medical adviser to the new administration’s Covid-19 team.
Dr Fauci told CBS earlier that he agreed with Mr Biden that it was “possible” the US might see an additional 250,000 deaths by January.
Dr Fauci has led the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIH) for more than 30 years – covering five presidential transitions – and has become the most visible member of the White House’s coronavirus task force.
He and Mr Trump have clashed repeatedly since the onset of the pandemic, but Dr Fauci said on Thursday he was never prevented by the White House from speaking his mind.
“There have been bumps along the road,” he said of his interactions with the Trump administration.
Fauci’s backtrack in full:
“There really has been a misunderstanding, and for that I’m sorry, and I apologize for that,” Fauci said in an interview with BBC television, after his earlier comments on CBS were broadcast in Britain and received prominent coverage.
“I do have great faith in both the scientific community and the regulatory community in the UK,” Fauci said.
“I did not mean to apply any sloppiness (to the UK regulatory process) even though it came out that way,” he said. “So if it did, I just want to set the record straight. I have a great deal of confidence in what the UK does both scientifically and from a regulatory standpoint.”