The announcement the Federal Government is investing in the development of three new COVID-19 vaccines is welcome news for those who put their faith in a vaccine to return our lives to the way they once were.
However, for those who think more thoroughly, the investment is ample warning that a single vaccine alone will not be enough. Indeed, there is ample evidence that vaccines alone will never be enough to stop people dying from COVID-19, even if they reduce the rate of deaths.
All of this will come as a rude shock to many Australians. For months the media has treated us to an almost continual barrage of stories about when a vaccine will come along so “our lives can return to normal.”
It simply won’t happen. In fact, this sort of media wishfulness is a case of dangerous and irrational COVID-19 thinking.
The unavoidable truth is that no vaccine is perfect, in fact far from it. The efficacy of vaccines varies wildly, with a study published in The Lancet finding the effectiveness of influenza vaccines of preventing recipients from catching the disease was anywhere between 33% and 73%. However, influenza strains vary, and inoculating against different strains of the virus is problematic.
The same may be true of COVID-19. No vaccine for any coronavirus yet exists, suggesting the virus does not generate a strong enough immune response to prevent re-infection.
One person who is sanguine about how effective a COVID-19 vaccine may be is Australia’s leading immunobiologist, Professor Ian Frazer. He told The Australian last month that the effectiveness of any vaccine we might receive could be as low as 30%.
“I think if you ask the general public, governments as well, whether they would be happy to accept a vaccine that was 50% protective right now, with the alternative of no vaccine, you would take a 50% effective vaccine and use it,” Professor Frazer said.
“To be quite honest, if a vaccine was 30% effective, I suspect we would probably use it if it was the only one,” he added.
He is not alone in being so pessimistic. Oxford University’s Professor Sir John Bell has publicly warned there will be no COVID-19 silver bullet. “For people with ageing immune systems, it may be quite difficult to get the same response as you’d get with a 35-year-old,” he said
Even worse, he has suggested it may not be possible to inoculate most of the world’s population before the virus outsmarts us.
“There’s going to be lots of this virus around for a long time, probably forever. It’ll likely mutate,” Sir John said.
Remember that we have had vaccines against polio for over 60 years, but it remains a problem in many parts of the world.
This is where politics and wishful thinking arrive at a cataclysmic collision. Even if we can immunise Australia against COVID-19, people will continue to die unless we also find better treatments for the people who still get the virus.
Trying to return to the old normal with just a vaccine, but without effective treatments, is like setting out on a long journey with only a right boot, but no left boot. It will simply be impossible.
Without treatments, there will still be outbreaks and deaths, and there will likely still be lockdowns, and that will present a major challenge to the faith Australians have in governments at all levels. This is especially so as the anti-vaxxer fringe will seek to exploit the issue for their own ends.
This gives rise to one of those rare situations where the media and politicians can, and should, do much together in the national interest. The public must be disabused of its misplaced faith in magic bullet vaccines.
At the same time, we must encourage new research and investment in effective treatments for COVID-19, as well as investing in advanced manufacturing. As Lord Browne has pointed out Britain’s lack of manufacturing capacity for drugs, medical equipment and PPE caused a slow response to the crisis and many deaths. They had to rely on supply chains that went back to China and India.
This necessitates new investment in the UK, as it does in Australia.
“I think the solution is not, as some people say, less engineering, less science. It’s more engineering and more science, which solve the problems of the day,” he warns.
All of this is, quite frankly, a challenge. It challenges governments in Australia to have a breadth of industrial vision not evident since the 1960s. It challenges investors to invest in difficult tasks, and abandon the portfolio driven obsession with quick returns. Most of all, it challenges us all to find a vaccine against irrational COVID-19 thinking.
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