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Britain was first country to reach supply agreement with BioNTech and Pfizer

The UK has become the first western country to grant approval for a Covid-19 vaccine, paving the way for a mass immunisation programme to begin as early as next week.

Germany’s BioNTech and US pharmaceutical company Pfizer said doses of the vaccine would be delivered to the UK in the coming days after the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) announced the approval on Wednesday morning.

Britain was the first country to reach an agreement with BioNTech and its partner Pfizer for supply of the vaccine, which has an efficacy rate of 95 per cent, according to the results of its phase-3 trials involving 43,000 people. The companies have since signed agreements with the US government, the EU and Japan.

The UK announcement triggered a flurry of responses from other countries. President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian authorities to begin mass voluntary vaccinations against Covid-19. Russia will have produced 2m doses of its Sputnik vaccine within the next few days, according to Mr Putin. Italy said it was aiming to procure more than 200m vaccine doses in the first quarter of 2021.

Responding to questions about the UK’s speed at approving the vaccine, June Raine, chief executive of the MHRA, said the public could be “absolutely confident” that the standards adhered to in Britain were equivalent to those in the rest of the world.

The UK was able to approve the vaccine earlier than the rest of Europe by using a longstanding regulatory provision that allows it to diverge from the European Medicines Agency in the case of urgent public need. The EMA has said it is unlikely to approve the jab until the end of the month.

US approval could be granted shortly after a Food and Drug Administration advisory meeting on December 10. Separately, an advisory panel to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted on Tuesday to prioritise healthcare workers and care home residents for the vaccine when it becomes available.

Care homes and the over-eighties will be in the vanguard of the UK’s coronavirus vaccination programme, one of the biggest and most consequential public health drives since the second world war.

Markets

US stock markets fell on Wednesday at the prospect that a stimulus deal could feed through to higher inflation. The 10-year “break-even” rate, which is derived from prices of US inflation-protected government securities, rose to its highest level since May 2019 on Tuesday. The S&P 500 opened 0.3 per cent lower and the tech-focused Nasdaq Composite dropped more than 1 per cent.

Line chart of overnight index swap curve (%) showing investors have backed off bets for negative UK interest rates

Investors have backed off from bets on sub-zero UK interest rates after a series of vaccine breakthroughs fuelled hopes of a sharp economic recovery next year. The Bank of England’s main interest rate is now expected to trough at roughly zero per cent in late 2022, according to derivative markets linked to expectations for the path of the bank rate.

The economic ravages of a pandemic mean that a national conversation is needed on changes to the US savings and retirement system, writes Michelle Seitz, chairman and chief executive of Russell Investments. Research found that more than three-quarters of US households nearing retirement had virtually no chance of meeting their income needs, she writes.

Business

Salesforce capped cloud computing’s 2020 work-from-home boom by announcing it would pay $27.7bn for workplace chat app Slack. Bret Taylor, Salesforce president and chief operating officer, said the pandemic had forced consumers and workers to rely more heavily on digital services, prompting the company to speed up efforts to build a more complete platform.

Tesco is to repay £585m in business tax relief, piling pressure on rival supermarkets to follow suit. The group is one of the UK’s largest ratepayers and was a big beneficiary of a year-long business rates holiday announced in March. It had previously defended its decision but on Wednesday chairman John Allan said: “We are financially strong enough to be able to return this [financial support] to the public, and we are conscious of our responsibilities to society.” 

The spread of Covid-19 infections among professional American football players is imperilling the National Football League’s season in the run-up to the Super Bowl. With the number of infections in the US growing, the NFL has been forced to reschedule games, teams have been ejected from their home stadiums and coaches have scrambled to find players to fill crucial positions.

Global economy

The Covid-19 crisis has led to a worsening of wage inequality around the world, the International Labour Organization said in its biennial report published on Wednesday. The UN agency said the level or growth rate of average wages had fallen in two-thirds of the countries it could track in the first half of 2020, with lower-paid workers — disproportionately women — most affected by a loss of working hours.

Chart showing real GDP growth in UK, France, Japan Australia, US and China, % year on year

Australia has exited its first recession in almost three decades, reflecting authorities’ adept handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. A boom in household spending drove the recovery as the easing of social-distancing restrictions prompted a 7.9 per cent jump in spending on goods and services in the third quarter — Australia’s largest quarterly increase in gross domestic product since 1976.

A bipartisan group of US senators has proposed a $908bn spending package to break the deadlock on fiscal stimulus. “It would be stupidity on steroids if Congress left for Christmas without doing an interim package as a bridge [to the next administration],” said Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat and one of the sponsors of the proposal which targets support for small business, local government and the unemployed.

Have your say

Coronavirus vaccines mean light at the end of the tunnel at last. But there’s a long way to go before the world can say goodbye to pandemic disruptions. Can governments roll out vaccine programmes swiftly, efficiently and fairly? And who should have priority? Please share your views with us — email us at covid@ft.com. Thanks.

MEOTu offers a response to the question: who do you think are the most influential women of 2020?

Jacinda Ardern is the person of the year. If ever there was an example of grace, compassion and effectiveness under pressure, it’s in her response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Inspiring.

The essentials

Surviving Covid is a moving documentary that cuts out the statistics and the politics and focuses on the patients and their families. “It brings home the thin line between life and death, and the link between intense suffering and intense love,” says chief features writer Henry Mance.

Final thought

The striking entrance to La Mamounia in Marrakech, Morocco
The striking entrance to La Mamounia in Marrakesh, Morocco © Alan Keohane / La Mamounia All rights reserved

The grand dame of Marrakesh’s hotel scene has had a facelift. La Mamounia has hosted Winston Churchill, the Rolling Stones and Gwyneth Paltrow, but a building boom over the past 15 years has left the Moroccan city with no fewer than 27 five-star establishments. After a five-month refurbishment programme, the hotel has reopened. Alice Morrison, who first visited a dozen years ago, returned for the sumptuous relaunch.

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