I never imagined the day would come when my trypanophobia would give way to a deep yearning for a vaccine. I’ve submitted reluctantly to each one of the vaccination injections I’ve had to endure throughout my life, but now find myself in a highly unlikely state of glee at the thought of a hypodermic needle primed with a coronavirus vaccine.
On Monday, we learned that the Pfizer/BioNTech’s candidate vaccine had proven 90% effective in global trials, performing much better than most experts had hoped. While the trial will continue into December, regulators are already looking to process an emergency licence application at record speed.
As science writer Tom Chivers explains in his analysis of this “potentially extremely good news”, although the real efficacy number could be slightly more or less than 90%, it would realistically not be worse than 80%. Crucially, one of the advantages of this vaccine is that it is quite easy to make, even in large doses, although it will to some extent be reliant upon supply chains for its constituent parts.
The European Union has agreed to purchase up to 300 million doses of the vaccine candidate and, if all goes according to plan, Pfizer believes it could supply 50 million doses by the end of this year, and about 1.3 billion by the end of 2021. In the UK, which has become the first country in Europe to register 50,000 coronavirus deaths, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, welcomed the news but sounded a cautionary note on timings, comparing it to “the distant bugle of the scientific calvary coming over the brow of the hill”.
The UK government, which ordered 40 million doses from Pfizer earlier this year, believes one vaccine is not enough and has invested in five other potential vaccines as well, translating into 300 million more doses. No less than 100 million of those would be of the Oxford/AstraZeneca candidate, which is expected to announce its interim findings from phase-three trials by “early December”.
As Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, noted in reference to the race for vaccines, “it is speed, and also high uptake, that are important. And I think in this space we’ve got to understand that it would be very easy to let the perfect become the enemy of the good here.”
News of an effective vaccine might indeed herald the beginning of the end of this pandemic. Yet challenges abound in terms of licensing, manufacturing, and distribution. The development of the Covid-19 vaccine has broken all records and provided a welcome boost to morale as we enter the winter months, but we may need to wait a while before the distant bugle becomes a deafening blast.