The European Commission has given approval for the use of the Covid-19 vaccine jointly developed by US company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, the final step to allowing Europe to start inoculations within a week.

European Union countries including Germany, Austria and Italy have said they plan to start vaccinations from 27 December as Europe tries to catch up with the United States and Britain where the roll-out began earlier this month.

The European Medicines Agency earlier approved the use of the Covid-19 vaccine following clinical trials among 40,000 participants.

"I am delighted to announce that the EMA scientific committee met today and recommended a conditional marketing authorisation in the EU for the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech," EMA chief Emer Cooke told an online press conference.

Ms Cooke told a virtual news conference: "Today's positive news is an important step forward in our fight against this pandemic, which has caused suffering and hardship for so many.

Emer Cooke said vaccine would protect against a new strain of the coronavirus found mainly in Britain 

"We have achieved this milestone thanks to the dedication of scientists, doctors, developers and trial volunteers as well as many experts from all EU Member States.

"Our thorough evaluation means that we can confidently assure EU citizens of the safety and efficacy of this vaccine and that it meets necessary quality standards.

"However, our work does not stop here. We will continue to collect and analyse data on the safety and effectiveness of this vaccine to protect people taking the vaccine in the EU."

The trial showed that the vaccine is effective at preventing Covid-19 in people from 16 years of age, the EMA said.

The agency said the study showed a 95% reduction in the number of symptomatic Covid-19 cases in the people who received the vaccine compared with people who received a placebo injection.

The trial also showed around 95% efficacy in the participants at risk of severe Covid-19, including those with asthma, chronic lung disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or a body mass index ≥ 30 kg/m2, the agency said.

Germany, Austria and Italy have said they plan to start vaccinations from 27 December.

The United States and Britain began their vaccination programmes earlier this month.

Ms Cooke said it appeared the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine would protect against a new strain of the coronavirus found mainly in Britain.

"At this moment, there is no evidence to suggest this vaccine will not work against the new variant."

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Preparations for the vaccine rollout come as the identification of a highly infectious new strain of the coronavirus in Britain caused chaos across the region, with countries shutting off travel ties with the UK and disrupting trade ahead of the Christmas holiday.

The pandemic has killed about 470,000 Europeans and is picking up pace in the winter months.

Many governments have imposed tighter restrictions on households to try to curb a second wave of infections and avoid overwhelming healthcare systems.

It is expected the vaccination of people in Europe will get under way over the 27-29 December period.

A phased-in approach means frontline healthcare workers and elderly residents of care homes are being prioritised, with most national schemes not reaching the general public until the end of the first quarter of 2021 at the earliest.

The goal of the 27-member EU is to reach coverage of 70% of its 450 million people.

Additional reporting Tony Connelly