Top US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci apologised on Thursday for casting doubt on the rigour of the British regulators who approved the Pfizer Inc vaccine against COVID-19, saying he had faith in the quality of their work.
Britain announced the approval of the vaccine on Wednesday, with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) saying it had rigorously assessed the vaccine data and had cut no corners.
It gave the UK the jump in the race to begin mass inoculation against a virus that has killed nearly 1.5 million people globally and hammered the world economy. US and European Union regulators are sifting through the same Pfizer vaccine trial data, but have yet to give their approval.
In a CBS interview on Thursday, Fauci suggested the British regulators had failed to scrutinise the data carefully enough and had waved the vaccine through - comments that were prominently reported on the main British TV news channels.
He later gave an interview to the BBC in which he said his earlier comments had come out wrong. "There really has been a misunderstanding, and for that I'm sorry, and I apologise for that," he said. "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 added.
Fauci said the point he had been trying to make was that in the U.S. context, with widespread vaccine scepticism, it would not have been appropriate to conduct the process in the same way and at the same speed as what happened in Britain.
"If we had for example approved it yesterday or tomorrow, there likely would have been pushback on an already scrutinising society," he said.
"You know, at the end of the day, it's going to be safe, it's going to be effective, the people in the UK are going to receive it and they're going to do really well, and the people in the United States are going to receive it and we're going to do pretty well," Fauci said.
In response to his earlier criticism, the MHRA issued a statement saying it had "rigorously assessed the data in the shortest time possible without compromising the thoroughness of our review".
The regulator also said its emergency approval had allowed "some stages of this process to happen in parallel to condense the time needed, but it does not mean steps and the expected standards of safety, quality and effectiveness have been bypassed".
Fauci is the most high-profile member of the White House coronavirus task force and has often clashed with President Donald Trump on how to protect Americans from the virus, which has caused about 273,000 U.S. deaths.
President-elect Joe Biden said on Thursday he had asked Fauci to be the chief medical adviser on his COVID-19 team when he takes office on Jan. 20.