Happy Christmas! The BioNtech/Pfizer vaccine’s approval, with others to come, is the best possible news at the end of a ghastly year. Vaccination is humankind’s most life-saving innovation, banishing scourge after scourge from the face of the earth. It is a technology that is so counterintuitive as to seem magical, but when it works it is unbeatable. The extinction of smallpox in 1977 was probably science’s greatest achievement.
Britain has been among the most incompetent countries at managing the pandemic, taking far too top-down and centralised an approach, but it will be the first to get vaccinating, weeks before America and a month before the lumbering bureaucratic dinosaur across the channel. We can thank Kate Bingham, our brilliant biologists and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. I recall being told by somebody with insider experience long before this that the European Medicines Agency added very little to what we do domestically, except duplication and delay.
I shall join the queue for a vaccine with enthusiasm when my turn comes. The chances of a harmful side-effect are small, for three reasons: the trials were actually longer and had more participants than normal; we know more about how to avoid damaging side effects than we did in the past when mistakes were more common; and the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are neither alive nor contain any proteins, just RNA (DNA’s slightly heavier cousin), so there is less to go wrong.
In fact, these messenger-RNA vaccines are probably the future of vaccines. They can be developed and tested more quickly than the old approach using whole viruses or proteins. And speed is what has been lacking in vaccine development for too long. Wayne Koff, president of the Human Vaccines Project, gave a prescient warning in 2019, before anybody had coughed in Wuhan: “Vaccine development is an expensive, slow and laborious process, costing billions of dollars, taking decades, with less than a 10 per cent rate of success … There is clearly an urgent need to determine ways to improve not just the effectiveness of the vaccines themselves but also the very processes by which they are developed.”
It is frankly a bit of a disgrace that we had failed to speed up the development of vaccines before this. The private sector found them unprofitable, the public-health establishment preferred to lecture us on eating junk food and the World Health Organisation announced in 2015 that the greatest threat in the 21st century to human health – health, mind you! – was climate change. Which suggests that it was not focused on its day job. So we ambled into the path of a new and highly contagious virus without sufficient preparation. Let’s hope we have learned that lesson.
Thus it is a technical fix that should bring the Covid nightmare to an end, where hand washing, modelling, behavioural science, social distancing, non-pharmaceutical interventions and lockdowns have so disappointingly underperformed. If it understands anything about human psychology, the Government should stop talking about “not letting our guard down” and instead set out a plan to lift its restrictions step by step as the vaccine rolls out. Tell those who have been vaccinated, and those who have had the virus, to start getting back to normal life, and not by showing passports at checkpoints, but by using their common sense. List the dates on which it expects to abolish rules.
Ideally, to slow the pandemic, you might start by vaccinating the working age population, both to help them back to work and because they are the more likely spreaders of the virus. But understandably, in order to save lives, governments everywhere are going to vaccinate the most vulnerable first. That means it may take slightly longer to achieve herd immunity through vaccination (which is the goal) but it will at least bring down the fatality rate, now well below one per cent and falling fast as we learn how to treat people.
All of which means we do not have to wait till everybody has had the vaccine before lifting the restrictions on travel and social mixing. There will be setbacks, maybe even scandals for the media to feast upon. But there really is light at the end of the tunnel.