Only a few months ago, as the Covid-19 pandemic continued to rage, some pessimistic experts were claiming that we would ‘just have to learn to live with the virus’.
But Christmas has arrived early. After months of locked-down misery, the best gift we could have is the news that scientists have developed several effective anti-Covid vaccines.
Judging by the success of the trials, we will soon have the means not just to provide protection against the virus, but even to stop its transmission.
Judging by the success of the trials, we will soon have the means not just to provide protection against the virus, but even to stop its transmission
Once an immunisation programme is fully under way early next year, society really can begin to return to normal.
Thanks to the work of Pfizer, Moderna and the Oxford-AstraZeneca partnership —which this week revealed that, in preliminary tests, its vaccine achieved an efficacy rate of up to 90 per cent, depending on the size of the dosage — freedom from the menace of Covid now beckons.
Their success is certain to be followed by other vaccines, such as Russia’s Sputnik V programme, which released data yesterday suggesting it is ‘more than 95 per cent effective’ — the threshold reached by Pfizer and Moderna. We have yet to hear about China’s vaccination efforts.
But despite this flood of welcome news, I know many people feel concerned about the safety of these vaccines, and not least the speed with which they have been developed.
Their anxiety may be deepened by reports that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine uses a genetically modified adenovirus that gives a version of the common cold to chimpanzees.
Such adenoviruses are not remotely dangerous and cannot cause disease in humans, but such terminology conjures up images of sinister biological manipulation.
Others may baulk at the fact that while many of the most common vaccines in use took decades to develop, refine and gain regulatory approval, we have an abundance of jabs less than a year after the first cases of Covid-19 emerged. Have corners been cut? Has the usual scrutiny of new medicines been abandoned?
As a specialist in this field, I can allay all such fears. The development of these vaccines has not been dangerously rushed. No risks or shortcuts with safety have been taken.
For those who worry that something could suddenly go wrong in two years’ time, rest assured that everything we know about vaccines means that such a scenario is most statistically unlikely.
The trials have been thorough, involving more than 100,000 volunteers, among them some of my colleagues here at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Those individuals — vaccine experts — are unlikely to have volunteered to take part if they had serious doubts about safety and they can testify to the efficiency of the trials.
Some might argue a sample of even 100,000 people is too small for problems to show up. When vaccination is scaled up, with tens of millions of people in this country — and billions around the world — receiving the jabs, aren’t we more likely to see side-effects emerge?
The truth is that both the number and diversity of the volunteers in current vaccine trials is easily large enough in statistical terms to draw firm conclusions.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca team says it can manufacture 40 million doses for this country by early in the new year, making a rapid mass-vaccination programme highly feasible and relatively cheap
And while the Covid vaccines have been developed far faster than is usual, there are three very good reasons for that.
First, the scale of the threat acted as a tremendous catalyst for swift action, encouraging innovation, ingenuity and creativity — just as World War II fostered pioneering inventions such as the jet engine, radar and computers.
Second, scientists from around the world have co-operated to an unprecedented degree, speeding up research.
Once China started sharing its vital data on the DNA sequence of the new coronavirus, researchers were swiftly able to identify its ‘spike protein’ and develop targeted measures to counter it.
Third, there have been tremendous leaps in the development of vaccines in recent years, especially in the wake of the SARS and MERS epidemics — both strains of coronavirus — that struck Asia and the Middle East in 2002 and 2012 respectively.
From the off, our fight against Covid-19 was built on that springboard of knowledge.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca team adopted the ‘traditional’ approach of using a harmless, weakened virus (that chimp ‘cold’ virus) to deliver spike protein to trigger the body’s immune system to protect from future infection.
In contrast, Pfizer and Moderna used the more novel method of ‘messenger RNA’ (ribonucleic acid — the genetic material of the coronavirus), causing the production of viral proteins in the body which spark the immune system to create antibodies and T-cells to combat the virus.
Both types of vaccine are safe and I would be happy to have either. There is no evidence of any serious side-effects from any of the vaccines and I seriously doubt any will emerge
But we should not exaggerate the novelty of messenger RNA. It has been used in potential vaccines for decades, and scientists understand it well.
To be clear: both types of vaccine are safe and I would be happy to have either. There is no evidence of any serious side-effects from any of the vaccines and I seriously doubt any will emerge.
But if I were forced to make a choice, I would go for the Oxford-AstraZeneca, because it uses the most tried and tested of vaccine delivery systems. I would certainly have no worries about its association with chimpanzees.
Russian propaganda on social media about the Oxford vaccine ‘turning humans into monkeys’ is a crude, laughable attempt to spook us — and how ironic that Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine uses the same delivery system!
Such lurid disinformation should be treated with the contempt it deserves.
After months of locked-down misery, the best gift we could have is the news that scientists have developed several effective anti-Covid vaccines
The Oxford vaccine has two other crucial advantages. First, it is much cheaper to produce, with each jab costing just £3, compared with at least £15 for the other vaccines. Low cost is essential as we need a global solution to a global problem.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca team says it can manufacture 40 million doses for this country by early in the new year, making a rapid mass-vaccination programme highly feasible and relatively cheap. Second, its vaccine can be stored in a fridge, while Pfizer’s must be kept below minus 70c (minus 94f) in specialist freezers.
I understand that despite all my reassurances about safety, some parents may see no need for jabs to be administered to their own children. After all, youngsters rarely suffer any symptoms of Covid but may feel the side-effects — even mild ones — of a vaccination.
Children will probably be the last to receive the vaccine. But they should not be ignored altogether because they can still spread the virus.
Whatever the benefits, it would be wrong for vaccination to become compulsory.
It might be that international travel and attendance at mass events such as concerts or football matches require a ‘certificate of immunity’, but that sort of curtailment of liberty should not become universal.
Nor should freedom of speech be restricted by criminalising anti-vaccination material online or elsewhere. The best way to deal with the anti-vaxxers is not to make them martyrs by trying to silence them, but to challenge their empty arguments.
Let the results of the vaccines be the best weapon in the campaign for their acceptance.
And with each passing day, those results are looking more and more impressive.
- Brendan Wren is Professor of Vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.