Oxford's vaccine delay has thrown the global race wide open

9 September 2020

11:59 PM

9 September 2020

11:59 PM

Even a politician as tenaciously optimistic as Matt Hancock was struggling to put any positive spin on it: the world has woken up to the disappointing news that trials of the Oxford vaccine for Covid-19 had been paused after an adverse reaction in one patient. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was one of seven in Phase 3 trials, in which doses are administered to thousands of people of different ages and varying states of health. A spokesperson at Oxford has said the pause ‘is a routine action which has to happen whenever there is a potentially unexplained illness in one of the studies, while it is investigated, ensuring we maintain the integrity of the trials.’

The Heath Secretary was also insistent that such a delay isn’t out of the ordinary, revealing to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that this is ‘actually the second time that that’s happened.’ The vaccine remains under development, Hancock insisted.

Well, perhaps. We will find out over the next few weeks. Still, there are two lessons to be learned from this delay.

The first is that, as scientists warned right at the start of lockdown, creating a safe and effective vaccine would be very hard. You can’t magic one up simply because political leaders demand one.

The second is that it throws the global vaccine race wide open. The British shot had been the clear global leader. But there are several more close behind. Donald Trump will be hoping an American vaccine can get there first (and Pfizer shares were up on today’s news). Vladimir Putin will want his Sputnik shot, with positive results last week, to get there first. And China’s bet on more traditional medical technology, backed by the ability of a Leninist state to throw huge resources at project, may turn out to be a winner. If the British vaccine falls behind in the race, these three great powers will have a chance of getting there first, with all the geo-political clout that will come with it.

This race is now as much about ideology as it is about immunology. And with ‘the Oxford’, as patriotic ministers had taken to referring to it, now delayed, the race has opened even more.

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