Thursday, March 31, 2022

Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine announcement is cause for cautious celebration

It is not yet the end of the pandemic, but the announcement by Pfizer/BioNTech that their vaccine has been 90% successful in the vital large-scale trials has got even the soberest of scientists excited.

These are interim results and the trial will continue into December to collect more data. The two companies – a tiny German biotech with the big idea and the giant pharma company Pfizer with the means to develop it – have not yet published their detailed data, so it is all on trust. And yet, nobody is suggesting the results have been over-egged. It looks as though the vaccine not only works, but works better than anyone hoped.

Most of us will not be vaccinated by Christmas, but it is possible the first shots will be given before the end of the year. The World Health Organization has said health and care workers should be first in line, but some countries including the UK may want to vaccinate their elderly populations first, as long as it appears the vaccine works well in that age group and has no significant side-effects.

Europe, the US and the UK have all pre-bought supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – there will be 200m doses going to the EU, 100m to the US and 40m to the UK. But although manufacturing is already well under way, there will not be enough to supply everyone who wants it straight away.

Experts have said that we need more than one vaccine to end the global pandemic. There are several more on the horizon, notably the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine that uses a different technology. The great news for all the vaccine makers out there is that it is possible. A vaccine can actually prevent infections – and not just stop people dying by attenuating the illness they get.

“I very much welcome the news that it appears for the first time that a coronavirus vaccine can provide protection against disease, which is hugely important for public health,” said Prof Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford vaccine group, which at one time looked as though it might be the first to declare efficacy results.

“For global equitable access, we will need multiple vaccines to be successful and so we continue in our efforts to test the Oxford vaccine and hope to be able to share interim results before the end of the year.”

At Imperial College London, Prof Robin Shattock, who is heading development of another mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccine said it was “not yet the endgame, but hopefully the beginning of global efforts to control this pandemic. A significant light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s a breakthrough for Pfizer/BioNTech, but also for vaccines in general. It also demonstrates the speed and utility of RNA vaccines technology.”

Remarkably, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could be the first vaccine to be approved using the new technology called mRNA, which delivers the genetic code of the virus into the body, rather than any part of the virus itself. Shattock has said it is very safe, for that reason. He was working on mRNA vaccines before Covid-19 struck, seeking to use the technology for other viruses in low-income countries. If it works on Covid-19, he believes it will be a game-changer for the wider fight against deadly viruses.

There is one downside to overcome. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine needs ultra-cold chain. That means freezers that can store it at -80C (-112F). Low-income countries do not have them, although UN organisations are already working on supply in case it is necessary.

Right now, the scramble among countries to ensure they get supplies of the first vaccine to show efficacy while taking political credit is on. The US has already tried to stake a claim, with some Republicans, including Mike Pence, the vice-president, asserting that Operation Warp Speed was partly responsible for the success. But Pfizer was having none of it.

“We were never part of the Warp Speed,” Kathrin Jansen, Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development told the New York Times. “We have never taken any money from the US government, or from anyone.”

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