With the night’s drawing in, there was light at the end of the tunnel; the prime minister had stated back in the summer that we would be ‘back to normal by Christmas’. Yet as the United Kingdom was forced back into lockdown by rising infection rates and the highest death toll since the spring, the light at the end of the tunnel was snatched away. But whilst Britons were waking up to dark, frost carpeted mornings in their homes, the vaccine arms race was heating up.
The first out of the block were Pfizer, their vaccine – made in collaboration with BioNTech – was announced to be 90% effective in preliminary trials. The government hastily gathered a press conference for the video linked journalists, and the waiting public at home, to announce that they had pre-ordered 40 million doses and could start vaccinating by Christmas; there might now – finally – be an end in sight.
Just days later, from across the Atlantic, more good news came when Moderna announced that they had developed a vaccine too, this time 95% effective. The vaccine – partly funded by Dolly Parton no less – did not require the same -70-degree storage temperatures that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine did, leading to hope that it may be much easier to roll out en masse. In another hasty press conference, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, stated that the government had already secured 5 million doses and were hoping for more in the coming months; to the delight of many Conservative backbenchers, the EU had secured none.
Then even more good news came when the alma mater of the health secretary, the chancellor of the exchequer and the prime minister announced that they too had made a breakthrough. The horse that the government had backed from the beginning, Oxford University, announced;
“The ChAdOx1 nCov-2019 coronavirus vaccine […] has been shown to trigger a robust immune response in healthy adults aged 56-69 and those over 70 years of age. The data, published today in The Lancet, suggest that one of the groups most vulnerable to serious illness, and death from COVID-19, could build immunity”.
Finally, there is light.
Who will win the vaccine race?
The Oxford University virus is at an earlier stage than both Pfizer and Moderna and the university have announced that they believe it is unlikely they will start to take it to market until 2021, however, Pfizer – who have now applied for approval from the American Food and Drug Authority – are expecting to start vaccinating people within the next month, likely from mid-December. Moderna too, are likely to bring their product to market before the turn of the year, although the numbers are likely to be low.
Whilst Pfizer are likely to win the race of bringing a drug to market, something they claim was possible due to the company not taking public money and giving their researchers a blank cheque to work on a vaccine, they are unlikely to be the major winners.
The need for -70 degree storage temperatures means that it is likely going to be a logistical challenge to roll out on a large scale, and perhaps will only be used until a more efficient product is brought to market. Although the government have ordered 40 million doses, patients would require two shots of the vaccine to be protected and it is likely that delivery of this many would not be possible until late next year. As such, it may be used in the early stages and then a switch to a less logistically challenging vaccine could be seen.
When will I get a vaccine?
With three potential options on the market in a matter of months, it is likely that by spring or summer 2021, most people will be able to get vaccinated, allowing for people to go back to normal. However, in the short term, there is likely to be prioritisation. Speaking at one of the government’s hasty press conferences, the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathon van Tam, stated that there are a number of potential directions the government could go in for prioritising people.
The first is to vaccinate the most vulnerable first. This means elderly people and those with underlying conditions could be vaccinated, helping to get the death rate down and prevent there from being significant fatalities, even if the virus continues to spread. This is something that Matt Hancock suggested is likely to be the initial approach, suggesting that the Pfizer vaccine will be used to protect the most vulnerable when it comes to market in December.
Another approach is to attack the R rate, by vaccinating those who are most likely to spread the virus. This could mean school children, teachers, university students and healthcare workers could be the first in line, as they are all the most likely to be exposed to the virus. This could help to minimise the infection rate which would see the virus spreading less quickly and potentially allow the majority of people to get back to normal as quickly as possible. This is perhaps the most likely approach for the Oxford vaccine when it comes to market, hopefully in early 2021.
Are the vaccines safe?
The easy, and correct, answer to the safety of the vaccines is that they would not be brought to market if they were not. Whilst many have been concerned that the process has been rushed through and that they may therefore be unsafe, the truth is that they have not been rushed.
Without sufficient safety data and testing, they would not receive approval by the independent authorities that govern the use of vaccinations. There is sufficient data, and given the amount of companies working on a vaccine, and the money spent on development, the likelihood is that they will be perhaps even more rigorously tested than usual. Across the world, hundreds of thousands of people have been tested and there is significant data that allows scientists and medical authorities to ensure that they will not only be safe, but allow us to be kept safe from the virus and return to a non-Covid world.