In Depth

Coronavirus: does vaccine breakthrough herald return to normal life?

Government scientist predicts pandemic may be brought under control by spring

A leading government scientist has claimed that a return to normal life may be imminent, following a major breakthrough in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Oxford University professor John Bell, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told the BBC yesterday that he believes “with some confidence” that the coronavirus could be brought under control by next spring. Bell offered his prediction following reports that a vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech has been found to be 90% effective.

However, other researchers are calling for caution, warning that while the findings of the Phase 3 clinical trial mark an important milestone, an end to the pandemic may still be a long way off.

Tempered celebrations

The UK’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, said yesterday that he and Boris Johnson consider the trial findings to be “a significant scientific breakthrough” - but added that many hurdles remain.

“I’m hopeful... but not yet certain that we could begin to see some vaccine by Christmas,” Van-Tam said. “This is like getting to the end of a play-off final, it’s gone to penalties. The first player goes up, scores the goal. You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty also expressed optimism, tweeting: “Preliminary news that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is effective demonstrates the power of science against Covid. We must see the final safety and efficacy data, but it is very encouraging. 

“It is essential we continue to suppress Covid, but it is a reason for optimism for 2021.”

Back to normal?

Although the breakthrough is undoubtedly cause for celebration, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health experts have been warning for months that any hopes that a vaccine will quickly end the global pandemic are unrealistic.

The UN health agency’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, told Bloomberg in September that while there has been an “unprecedented coordinated effort globally” to create a working vaccination against Covid-19, the drug is “not the issue”.

“The vaccine is not going to be the end of the pandemic,” Kluge said. “The end of the pandemic is going to be when we as people learn to live with the pandemic, and that can begin tomorrow.”

The number of people worldwide who are likely to get the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine this year is also relatively low. The developers say they will have enough safety data by the third week of November to take their vaccine to regulators, and then hope to supply 50 million doses by the end of 2020, followed by around 1.3 billion by the end of 2021.

“The UK should get ten million doses by the end of the year, with a further 30 million doses already ordered,” the BBC reports. But the success of the rollout will also hinge on the medical facilities available, with the vaccine needing to be stored at minus 70C until the day it is used, when it can be stored in a normal fridge.

“This temperature is far out of the reach of standard refrigerators,” says The Times. “The requirements may make holding vaccinations in GP clinics, care homes and other locations difficult.”

Despite those potential storage problems, the UK has begun to draw up an action plan for mass inoculation. Van-Tam told reporters yesterday that a strategy will be put in place to prioritise certain demographics once the vaccine rollout begins.

“Far and away, age is the biggest priority for patients who most need the vaccines and need to get those vaccines first,” he said. “You can expect a theme of increasing age being the highest priority to be a theme that stays with us as we go on this journey.”

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