The global effort to produce a vaccine
November saw something of a breakthrough in the fight against COVID-19. But are we likely to reach a point soon where the coronavirus is under control?
It was revealed that Pfizer and BioNTech have developed a vaccine that protects 90% of people from developing COVID-19 symptoms - and the team had no safety concerns following tests on 43,500 trial participants. They are now pushing ahead to get emergency approval to roll it out, meaning people could start receiving a vaccine this year. A few days later, Moderna announced a potential vaccine that had proven 95% effective in preliminary phase III trials. Then on 23 November, Oxford University, working in partnership with Astra Zeneca, announced THEY had seen success with their vaccine. It was found to be, on average, 70% effective in a preliminary analysis of phase III trial data, but could be more effective if smaller dosages were given initially.
News of a potential vaccine has been welcomed by many, but it will be a long process
The scientist behind the Pfizer discovery is confident that this will solve the problem of coronavirus - but of course, we are far from being out of the woods. Fully proving efficacy, getting the vaccine delivered, and ensuring people are happy taking it, are all hurdles to overcome.
Across the world, various potential vaccines are undergoing clinical trials, with governments and businesses spending billions to help stamp out the new coronavirus by 2021. But they must go through rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness before they are approved for public use, and this process can take many years. The three potential vaccines announced in recent weeks are based on quite different techniques, with only the ‘Oxford vaccine’ using tried and tested methods of immunisation.
53% of people in the UK are worried about the safety of coronavirus vaccines
There isn’t just concern for getting to a medical solution. There are also clear worries amongst members of the public about taking a vaccine that has been turned round within such a short timeframe. Kantar research shows a decrease over time in willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Back in June, 50% of adults in Britain said they would ‘definitely’ get vaccinated against the virus, dropping to 43% by 9th November. In the US the drop is sharper: 47% said in June they would ‘definitely’ get vaccinated, compared with only 30% saying ‘definitely’ now.
Many people also seem confident that a vaccine simply isn’t necessary: In the US, for example, 42% of adults are confident that they can prevent themselves from getting the coronavirus without vaccination.
Distribution of a vaccine could be challenging
Even if people are willing to be vaccinated in decent numbers to achieve the much lauded ‘herd immunity’ in countries, will it get to the right people quickly enough? We don’t know exactly what a global roll-out would look like, or how long it could take. For example, Pfizer’s proposed vaccine must be stored at incredibly cold temperatures (-70°C), which provides even more logistical challenges.
According to the World Health Organisation, “When a safe and effective vaccine is found, COVAX (led by WHO, GAVI and CEPI will facilitate the equitable access and distribution of these vaccines to protect people in all countries. People most at risk will be prioritised.”
Relatedly, there is an issue of cost. While potentially less effective, the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine is reported to be a lot cheaper than the potential Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, and that team has stated it will offer the drug at cost price to developing nations.
Populations will need to put their trust in global health
The Lancet notes: “The development and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine has the potential to greatly change the course of the pandemic; however, ensuring equitable access will require countries, organisations, and corporations to place their trust in global health.” The recent Kantar survey found that 57% in GB are confident that a vaccine will not be dangerous if proposed by the public authorities. Only 40% think the same in the US.
In the meantime, we must continue our research
We still need to understand disease propagation and minimise the spread of COVID-19, regardless of positive news about successful vaccines. As well as investing in vaccines, governments must consider the importance of early warning systems and improving how we collect and analyse data relating to COVID-19 transmission.
Moai can help
The app helps us understand COVID-19 propagation by safely collecting actionable data with state-of-the-art privacy-preserving technology.
With data encrypted at every stage, Moai app users check in to venues using a QR code, and are also asked to share information about the kind of places they have been and the ways they have been interacting. This information, combined with both positive and negative test results, gives us a clearer picture of how venue type, ventilation, human contact and other factors contribute to the propagation of the virus. This can be analysed by academics, at scale, without compromising user privacy.
If a vaccine can’t be approved quickly, or isn’t trusted by members of the public, it isn’t a catch-all solution to this unusual medical emergency. We still need smart and rigorous approaches that give us accurate data, to help public bodies keep the spread of the virus under control.