At last, there is hope of an end to this pandemic. Scientists appear to have performed an amazing feat, the rest of us must do our best too
Medicine is only partly a matter of science; it is, very much, the business of people. The inspiring news that a Covid vaccine appears within reach, with interim results showing the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate has 90% efficacy in protecting people from illness, reflects the extraordinary efforts of scientists this year. The speed with which this one has been developed – with others close behind – is remarkable. Detailed data has yet to be published, and much remains unknown, including how long individuals may be protected, whether it prevents infection and how effective it will be for older people, who are most vulnerable to Covid-19. There are still no guarantees it will be used, though manufacturing has begun. Nonetheless, this is a potentially transformative moment.
Now it is up to the rest of us to do our part. If this vaccine becomes available from the end of the year, as now looks likely, and others soon follow, the deployment will matter as much as its discovery. As one scientist has noted: “Vaccines don’t save lives. Vaccinations save lives.” Pfizer and BioNTech hope to make 50m doses available this year, but each patient requires two doses, and with the US, EU, UK and others all having placed advance orders, each country will get a tiny fraction of those it ultimately needs. Even if production of this vaccine is scaled up as planned, others will still be needed. The UK has a clear plan for who will be protected first, beginning with the oldest in society and those who care for them and thus might transmit the virus to them. Professor John Bell told MPs that there is a 70%-80% chance of having the most vulnerable covered by Easter if authorities “don’t screw up the distribution”. Mass inoculation will be a challenge; NHS England is planning seven-day services.
Sharing across countries will be as important as appropriate distribution within them. The Covax scheme is meant to ensure that doses are meted out more fairly internationally, but is still underfunded, and many experts are concerned that for years, developing countries may see only a small proportion of their populations protected. The technical requirements of this vaccine – which has to be stored at -80C – may pose additional problems in some regions.
A second problem, as perverse as it might seem, could be vaccine rejection. More work is needed to counter the general anti-vaccine sentiment that has been on the rise in many places. Other people will have reasonable concerns about this specific one, given how recently and quickly it has been developed. Clear, comprehensive and easily understandable public information is the best response: making clear the benefits, dispelling myths and reassuring individuals as to safety. More than 20,000 people have now been given it with no major adverse effects so far reported. Dismissing anxieties out of hand is only likely to increase distrust.
The most serious danger is the immediate one: the risk that people may conclude that a magical solution is at hand and they no longer need to put up with stringent coronavirus measures that are costing them economically and personally. They might be tempted to feel that older people will soon be protected, and in the meantime can stay out of the way.
This would be a deadly error, leading to many unnecessary deaths and potentially causing serious damage to younger people’s health too. News of the vaccine should instead be the spur to redouble efforts. For the government, that means salvaging test and trace; for the rest of us, it means abiding by the lockdown and other restrictions, wearing masks and keeping a distance from others – recognising that this must not be endured forever, but that vigilance now will protect others and ourselves. We have all the more reason to buy time when we know why we are doing so, and that there will be an end to this.
Few of us are gifted with the brilliance and experience required for a scientific breakthrough, or the medical skills to deploy it. But we are all equipped to play our part, heartened by the knowledge that there is, it seems, a way out.