One of the scientists behind the breakthrough coronavirus vaccine has insisted that the jab is safe as ministers draw up plans for a mass public health programme.
Professor Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech, which has developed the vaccine with Pfizer, said he did not see any serious side effects of the vaccine.
The key ones were mild to moderate pain for a few days on the arm or wherever the patient had the jab, or a mild to moderate fever.
“We did not see any other serious side effects which would result in pausing or halting of the study,” he added.
Ministers are currently developing a strategy to encourage the public to get the vaccine as soon as it is available, if it passes all its safety tests.
They also want to tackle misinformation from anti-vaxxers who could put take-up – and therefore the health of the public – at risk.
But Prof Sahin warned that it could be another 12 months before life starts to get back to normal – even with a successful vaccine.
He said that the impact of the jab – which could start being rolled out in the UK from next month – will start to kick in next summer.
However, it was “absolutely essential” to have a high vaccination rate before autumn next year to ensure a return to normal life next winter.
The Government has already warned that the breakthrough will not have an impact on infection numbers during the current second wave.
Another 24,962 confirmed Covid cases across the UK were announced yesterday, as well as a further 168 deaths.
The Turkish-German scientist told the BBC: “We did not see any other serious side effects which would result in pausing or halting of the study.
“We have now safety data for a proportion of the subjects for more than two months, and we are continuing to collect data for more than two years, to not only see the short and mid-term side effect profile but also the long-term side effect profile.
“But so far the safety profile appears to be absolutely benign.”
The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with around 10 million available by the end of the year.
The jab, which was trialled in six countries, is given in two doses, three weeks apart.
So five million of the most vulnerable people, and frontline care and NHS staff, will be the first in line.
Scientists hope the vaccine will halve transmission of the virus with preliminary analysis showing it could prevent more than 90% of people from getting Covid-19.
Prof Sahin said: “If everything continues to go well, we will start to deliver the vaccine end of this year, beginning next year.
“Our goal is to deliver more than 300 million of vaccine doses until April next year, which could allow us to already start to make an impact.
“The bigger impact will happen until summer, the summer will help us anyway because the infection rate will go down in summer.”
“What is absolutely essential is that we get a high vaccination rate before autumn/winter next year, so that means all the immunisation, vaccination approaches must be accomplished before next autumn.
“I’m confident that this will happen, because a number of vaccine companies have been asked to increase the supply, and so that we could have a normal winter next year.”
Prof Sahin said he did not know how long immunity lasts – but added that vaccines could be combined if someone no longer had an immune response.
The Army and NHS chiefs have been working for months on how to distribute the vaccine speedily to those who need it most, should it pass its safety tests.
This will involve mass vaccination centres being set up in large venues such as conference halls and schools.
Smaller mobile and pop-up vaccination units will work seven days a week alongside traditional venues such as GPs and pharmacies.
The vaccine drive will also need huge numbers of personnel including vaccination teams who can visit the frail and elderly in their own home.
As well as the Pfizer vaccine there are hopes that the Oxford/Astrazenica research could provide a second one by the end of the year.
In addition, the UK will be the first country to run final-stage trials of a vaccine being developed by a company owned by Johnson and Johnson.
Researchers from pharmaceutical firm Janssen are aiming to recruit around 6,000 UK participants – from a total of 30,000 people globally – at 17 sites across the country.
The 12-month study, which will start in March, is looking for volunteers in Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, London, Leicester, Sheffield, Manchester, Dundee and Belfast.
Yet as well as rolling out vaccines, ministers are also attempting to push up mass-testing rates to help get the virus under control.
It came as the head of the Office for National Statistics said the coronavirus rate was “slowing” across the UK.
But Professor Sir Ian Diamond also said that he expected to see infections continuing to increase for now as many people will have caught the virus before the second lockdown began.
There was also a warning for ministers hoping to lift restrictions over Christmas – which risks allowing infection rates to increase once again.
SAGE Professor John Edmunds said: “We need to take a long-term view and be sensible and realise that we’re going to have to have restrictions in place for some time.
“Yes, we can lift them when it’s safe to do so, which will be primarily when large numbers of people have been vaccinated.
“But flip-flopping between encouraging people to mix socially, which is what you’re doing by encouraging people to go to restaurants and bars, versus then immediately closing them again, isn’t a very sensible way to run the epidemic.”
The Government last night announced the opening of two new testing “megalabs” which will become operational in early 2021.
The two labs, based in Leamington Spa and Scotland, will each add 300,000 to the UK’s daily testing capacity when operating at full capacity.
Meanwhile, England’s former chief medical officer said that thousands of coronavirus deaths could have been avoided if ministers had tackled the obesity crisis.
Professor Dame Sally Davies blamed the country’s high death toll on “a structural environment” that enabled junk food makers to encourage consumption.