This week came a glimmer of light at the end of the Covid tunnel: the interim or ‘halfway’ results from the Pfizer vaccine trial reported this week were better than many had expected. The results still need to be fully reported and evaluated, but if the vaccine works and is safe, then we should all be queuing up to get vaccinated. However, we are still some way off from when we can cast off our facemasks and consign social distancing to history. And it's more important than ever that we try hard to prevent spread of this virus now.
So, what are the results showing us?
More than 40,000 people from six countries have taken part in the study. Half have been given the trial vaccine, the other half a placebo, or dummy vaccination. Researchers followed them to see who became infected with the pandemic coronavirus. Of the first 94 to catch it, ten times more had received the placebo than the vaccine. This is why the developers claim the vaccine could be 90% effective at preventing infection.
The RNA vaccine uses a novel approach. It includes a key part of the virus's genetic code, an mRNA sequence that when injected into our bodies, enters our cells and tells them to build some of the viruses proteins. These are recognised by our immune system, which then starts to mount a defence against the virus.
These results tell us that a vaccine against Covid is possible, which up until now was not a certainty; for example, there is still no vaccine against HIV. Unlike some viruses this Coronavirus appears to have a slow rate of mutational change which makes the job of developing vaccines easier.
Other potential vaccines using different methods are not far behind. We do not know which will prove most effective, but now there is hope that we will have at least one in the next few months that will help us get back to life as we remember it.
But there is still a way to go before we can all line up to receive a dose. We need to see the full results about how effective it is and ensure that it is safe to use. We also need to know whether the vaccine works as well for different groups of people, whether it stops people passing on infection, and when it doesn’t prevent infection, does it protect people from becoming severely ill?
There are also big logistical questions. Most vaccines can sit comfortably in a GP’s fridge ready to be administered, but vaccines like this one have to be stored well below freezing at -70°C and are only stable for a short period at normal fridge temperatures. The vaccine also has to be given twice, three weeks apart.
What is important to remember though is that the UK puts all medicines through the most stringent safety trials. If the vaccine passes these trials then it will be safe to use and gives us all a way out of the pandemic.
That is why I will be getting a Covid vaccine as soon as one is available.
But that is not true of everyone. A survey of 70,000 people by UCL, launched before lockdown, showed that only half (49%) were “very likely” to get vaccinated. That leaves millions of people who would still be at risk of catching Covid and of passing it on, if they do not get the protection a vaccine will give them.
To protect the country from Covid, some estimates say over 70% of us need to be vaccinated. Refusing a vaccine is a decision not only about your own health, but also the health of other people around you. You would be putting your individual rights ahead of the rights of society, and potentially endangering the lives of others.
If we are to get through this, we must do it together as a community. The country must unite for the good of the whole nation. When a vaccine is ready and is shown to be effective and safe, we should all roll our sleeves up and take our doses, protecting both ourselves and those around us. That way we can drive out this virus together and return our society to normality.