Covid vaccines: hugs and handshakes soon?
Some of my financially-inclined friends were not celebrating with the rest of us on Monday. “I wish I’d bought shares in Pfizer,” reflected one, ruefully, as the markets surged off the back of the good news about the vaccine the pharma giant is developing...
The news is a welcome shot in the arm for the nation’s flagging morale, but as England Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan van Tam commented at a recent press briefing on the announcement from Number 10, “one swallow doesn’t make a summer.” What he’s getting at is that these results from Pfizer are preliminary. The Phase III trial that will formally show whether the vaccine really works isn’t even over yet, and some major questions remain unanswered.
We’re told that the vaccine is 90% effective. But, turning that around, it means it doesn’t work for one person in ten. So who are those ten percent? If they’re chiefly the patients that are also destined to become severely ill from Covid-19, then that makes the vaccine a lot less useful. Also, how long lasting is the immunity conferred by the new vaccine? The trial has been running only for a matter of months, meaning we can only say with certainty that the protection lasts that long. So will we have to find out the hard way that immunity has worn off?
Looking on the bright side, let’s assume that the odds are in our favour and those vulnerable to severe Covid-19 are protected. Does that mean we can also get back to normal? Ultimately, it’s likely, but not for a long time (a year realistically), and here’s why. Manufacturing vaccines at the scale required to protect an entire country of 68 million people is no mean feat. The UK buys in almost all of its vaccines from abroad - Belgium is a major supplier – because we have very little manufacturing capacity of our own at the moment. This is going to be a big bottleneck in the supply of any vaccine going forward.
The headache also doesn’t end with just making the stuff: physically distributing a vaccine that – in the case of Pfizer’s agent – needs to be stored at minus 80 Celsius is a major problem. Then there’s the issue of administering it. We struggle to vaccinate 15 million people in the UK each year against flu, and Covid will require us to upscale this by 400%. There’s also the consideration that, alarmingly, surveys in some countries have suggested that as many as half of adults may be reticent to take up a Covid vaccine owing to safety concerns.
So, while I welcome the news that at least one of the twenty-plus coronavirus vaccines currently in clinical trials is looking likely to reach the finishing line, I am under no illusions that we are out of the woods yet and that our present hug- and handshake-free, socially-distanced existence is going away soon.
I also wish I’d bought some Pfizer shares too...