The vaccine goalposts have shifted

8 September 2020

3:42 AM

8 September 2020

3:42 AM

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock provided a vaccine update this morning London time, reporting that the chances of the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine being ready by early next year are ‘looking up’. With trials pending in the UK, USA and Brazil, the Health Secretary suggested that the best-case scenario would see it approved this year, but more likely spring 2021, with doses of the vaccine already being manufactured so it’s ready for dispersal as soon as it’s approved.

But we’ve heard this before. At the height of lockdown, Oxford professor Sarah Gilbert – head of one of the teams developing the vaccine – told the Times that a vaccine would be ready by September: ‘It’s not just a hunch and as every week goes by we have more data to look at… I would go for 80 per cent, that’s my personal view.’ September has arrived, parliament is back in session, and yet no vaccine has yet been confirmed.

Is Britain too reliant on the silver-bullet vaccine solution? As Ross Clark has previously noted on Coffee House, the government’s speculative spending spree on vaccines so far totals hundreds of millions of doses for a population of 65 million, hedging its vaccine bets at great expense to the Treasury. But the more pertinent problem isn’t that the UK ends up with too many doses, but if none of the doses work at all.

Seven vaccine candidates are either on the cusp of or have officially entered Phase Three, which is broadly characterised by significantly expanding the pool of people on whom the vaccine is tested. Contenders at the front of the race include Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer in partnership with the German firm BioNTech, and three institutions based in China. (Sputnik V, produced the Gamaleya Research Institute in Moscow, suffered a serious backlash last week after it was approved despite not entering into Phase Three of clinical trials.) While Oxford-Astrazeneca has produced encouraging results testing its vaccine on younger, healthier people, it does not have results yet for how older, more vulnerable people fare after receiving it. Meanwhile, the Centre for Disease Control has alerted all 50 states to prepare to start administering a vaccine as early as November – but it’s rumoured that the two vaccines the United States is preparing to use are Pfizer and Moderna, the furthest along in late-stage clinical trials. In short, there is still plenty that needs to be done – and plenty that could go wrong – on our way to confirming a Covid solution. And there is no guarantee that if one is discovered, it will first be discovered in Britain.

How much longer can we continue to live with Covid restrictions, if the arrival of a vaccine is delayed yet again? Professor Hendrik Streeck, a leading virologist at the University of Bonn, has warned that the virus ‘will still be here in three years and we have to find a way to live with it’. But such a heavy reliance on getting a vaccine has delayed and possibly eroded our ability to learn to live with the virus. While infection rates have started to rise in the UK, hospitalisations for Covid-19 remain at record lows since the virus hit. We don’t yet know if we’ll see an uptick – following on from the increase in infections – or if the dramatic drop in the number of people experiencing serious symptoms is a result of something else: both increased immunity to the virus or a reduction in Covid’s potency have both been floated by the medical community.

What is certain, however, is that Covid restrictions are starting to take their toll. Hancock warned young people this morning that they must continue to abide by social distancing rules after it was reported last week that a third of new cases were among those aged 20 to 29. But it’s not just the young who will be feeling the strain of the rules. The majority of mid-size businesses are already reporting that they won’t be returning all of their staff when the furlough scheme comes to an end. The new normal is only expected to become more painful in the coming months, when unemployment inevitably ticks up and difficult decisions are made about local lockdowns or renewed national restrictions. On the balance of hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, the government may need to shift towards the latter if it becomes apparent that the vaccine race has a while longer to go.

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