Analysis: The search for a COVID-19 vaccine

Yesterday, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer stood in front of the TV cameras and explained that social distancing will be needed in Britain until at least the end of the year to prevent fresh outbreaks of the coronavirus.

It’s a pretty stark and worrying pronouncement. And one that will surely apply in some form elsewhere in Europe.

Stark because, as we “deconfine”, it is a reminder we will not be returning to normality anytime soon and worrying particularly for businesses like restaurants and bars or entertainment venues that are already struggling.

What led Professor Chris Whitty to make this claim, was that he thought there was only an “incredibly small” chance of a vaccine or treatment being ready for use this year.

But the race to find one has begun. There are now 150 development projects worldwide. In the UK today, 510 volunteers at Oxford University were set to be given the first dose of a potential vaccine, based on a virus found in chimpanzees.

Meanwhile, yesterday Germany’s regulatory body, the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut (PEI), sanctioned the country’s first trials on humans for a possible vaccine being developed by BioNtech and Pfizer.

Three other clinical trials have been approved worldwide since mid-March, with Chinese and US developers. And there is some hope. Research director Sarah Gilbert estimated that the Oxford trial had around an 80 per cent chance of being successful. It aims to develop a million doses of the vaccine by September.

However, unfortunately, most don’t share that optimism. Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant said a coronavirus vaccine will probably not be ready before the end of 2021 – that’s at least 18 months! Why? Because vaccines need not just to be fully tested and approved, but also manufactured, and then widely distributed.

Though vaccines are ultimately the most effective way of controlling the virus, some scientists hope drugs, which are also being developed, could help manage and mitigate its deadly health effects. And then there are blood tests, which can determine whether someone has had COVID-19 and if they are likely to be immune to the virus.

In those circumstances, could parts of the population, who are immune be allowed to return to work and a relatively normal life? Would that be fair? At this point, scientists aren’t sure how long people are immune for and if someone can become reinfected.

There are simply more questions than answers, and when we do get answers, they may well prompt even more questions.

We are merely at the start of this pandemic. We might get lucky with a vaccine but at the moment it’s that stark and worrying prediction from Professor Whitty which could be the path that we are all forced to follow – two metres apart, of course.

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews’ political editor.

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