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Vaccines hopes for Covid-19

27th Nov 2020
Vaccines hopes for Covid-19

(Photo credit: Fernando Zhiminaicela/Pixabay)

The pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have announced that their coronavirus vaccine can prevent Covid-19, with results so far indicating it is 90% effective. On the release of this news, there was much hope and celebration as the data proved that a vaccine to the virus was possible; and an end to social distancing, lockdowns and economic depression was at last in sight.

However, the Government is still urging caution saying that whilst this is the much-anticipated scientific breakthrough we had hoped for, we must still adhere to the rules of lockdown and keep to social distancing as we are not out of the woods yet. The vaccine still needs to complete the trial and the resulting data needs to undergo a regulatory assessment by the MHRA (which regulates medicines in the UK) before it can be approved. Even if approval is granted and fast-tracked the number of doses available for each country will be limited until manufacturing is increased, so the Government will have to prioritise who gets those initial doses.

In the UK, Downing Street has reported that the Government has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, 10 million of which are due to be delivered by the end of the year if approval is granted. This means only selected groups will be given the vaccine in the first round of vaccination programmes.

Health officials have already been identifying which groups should be given the vaccine first and priority will be for those most vulnerable to the disease – this will include Care home residents and staff, NHS staff and people over the age of 80 years. After this other vulnerable groups and year groups working backwards in age through those over 70, then 65, etc. will be vaccinated.

Even if the vaccine is approved by the end of the year, a mass vaccination programme will take some organisation and time. GPs have already been told to be on standby to deliver the vaccine and prioritise it in their clinics, but as two doses 3 weeks apart are needed for immunity extra support from people such as retired doctors, nurses and students doctors may be called upon to help roll out the vaccine in centres up and down the country.

Pop-up vaccination sites will also be used in addition to GP surgeries and health clinics to help speed up the vaccination programme. However, in addition to the manpower needed to implement a mass vaccination campaign, there is the added logistical challenge of storing the vaccine, which needs to be kept at -80C.

The vaccine needs to be thawed before use, but can then only be stored in a fridge for a short time — most GP surgeries will not have -80C storage facilities, so this will complicate transportation, storage and getting a steady supply of doses to clinics up and down the country.

What do we know about the vaccine?

Pfizer developed the vaccine over the past 9 months with BioNTech. They published an interim report on November 9 stating that the vaccine has an efficacy rate of 90% at 7 days after the second dose. Protection is achieved 28 days after the initiation of the first dose. No safety concerns have been observed so far. Full data for the trial is expected by the end of November but given such strong data and a good safety profile so far, it is anticipated the vaccine will be approved for the use which means vaccination could begin this winter.

Commenting on the news Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said, “We won’t deploy a vaccine unless we can be confident in its clinical safety, but we also do need to be ready should a vaccine be licensed and get through all those hurdles and be ready to roll it out.”

Whilst this vaccine looks promising there is still a lot the researchers do not yet know about it. One of the big questions is how long does immunity last? For many vaccines, immunity is long-lasting, but others need boosters.

If immunity is not long-lasting it may be that regular vaccinations are needed, just like the annual flu jab. Also, data from the trial did not show if protection from Covid-19 was the same in all age groups, as the elderly will be given the vaccine first this is something that will need to be assessed as sometimes the immune response to vaccinations are not as strong in older recipients.

Also, will the vaccine slow transmission rates in the community? And whilst no safety concerns have been identified so far during the trials, which involved 43,500 people, continual monitoring of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine will be needed as millions of people will be vaccinated.

Other vaccines

There are around 50 vaccine candidates in the late-stage clinical development. Over the coming months results from other major pharmaceutical companies are expected including Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Moderna.

Here in the UK, the University of Oxford is developing a vaccine, which has received financial support from the UK Government who have placed an order for millions of doses of this vaccine as well should it be approved.

Results from this trial are expected in the next few weeks, and it has the advantage that it can be stored at between 2C and 8C, making it easier to distribute and store in the community. The Oxford vaccine is also expected to be significantly cheaper than the Pfizer vaccine. It is anticipated that should it be approved the Oxford vaccine will form the basis of the UK’s vaccination programme.

Although we are not out of the woods yet – or rather out of lockdown – this announcement has given hope that a vaccine will be available at least by next year. As there around still many vaccines in late stage of clinical development, there will likely be a few vaccines options available in time.

Having a choice of vaccines, it could be useful in alleviating any supply issues whilst production is scaled up and different vaccines may be more suitable for use in different groups depending on age, associated diseases and vulnerabilities, etc.; the more tools we have to fight the coronavirus the better.

However, in the meantime we all still need to exercise caution and follow social distancing rules, the virus is still circulating in the community and hospital admission are already high in many hospitals affecting the ability of the NHS to treat other health conditions.

The vaccine is not approved yet, and vaccinating the whole UK will take time. In addition, the rest of the world will want access to any vaccines too, meaning limitations in supply are likely — although if more than one vaccine is approved this will help resolve supply issues.


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