From the start of the pandemic, the big bucks, the energy and the propaganda went to vaccines. They would save our economies and our lifestyles. The other weapons in the fight to control COVID-19 infections, including masks and rapid tests, were played down – or worse: Donald Trump made it clear he thought masks were for sissies.
The announcement Monday by U.S. drug giant Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, that their vaccine candidate was more than 90-per-cent effective in Phase 3 trials seemed to confirm that throwing billions of dollars of public and private money at vaccine development and purchase contracts was a brilliant strategy. The U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed alone doled out more than US$10-billion to Big Pharma’s vaccine moonshot.
The markets soared, breaking intraday records, and the announcement made us all giddy with excitement and optimism. Finally, almost a year after the novel coronavirus was first detected in China, there was light at the end of the tunnel. The touted V-shaped recovery was aptly named – V was for vaccine, as Montreal’s BCA Research put it Friday.
The enthusiasm was easy to understand. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine candidate showed that it was possible to immunize people against the virus; until the announcement, the notion of mass immunization was theoretical.
It also proved the worth of synthetic messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology, which, despite decades of effort and promise, had never resulted in an approved vaccine or drug. The invention creates a bespoke mRNA that triggers the production of protein antibodies that can neutralize infections.
But it didn’t take long for investors, epidemiologists and public-health officials to sprinkle some cold water on the vaccine news. By the end of the week, the markets were off their Monday peaks. Yes, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is coming, but we know little about it. All we have is a news release, not a peer-reviewed study of the trials that would give us an accurate picture of what the vaccine can and cannot do.
Certainly, the production and distribution logistics alone are daunting. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would have to be chilled to minus 70 C, making their storage and distribution difficult even in wealthy countries and perhaps impossible in poor ones. Almost no hospital in North America and Europe has ultracold freezers. Governments will have to buy them.
The European Commission has signed a contract for as many as 300 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on behalf of the European Union’s 27 member states. The vaccine calls for two jabs, given three weeks apart, suggesting that 150 million people could receive it.
The population of the EU is about 450 million, so not everyone who wants the jab in the next year or so is going to get one. But almost 50 other vaccine candidates are in development around the world, 10 of them in late-stage trials. There is a good chance a few will make the cut.
While the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine holds out enormous promise, the risks cannot be ignored. Global herd immunity could be years away – and may never come at all. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Thursday told a London audience that vaccines should end the pandemic but said he doubts the coronavirus will be eradicated. “I think we need to plan that this is something we may need to maintain control over chronically,” he said.
U.S. president-elect Joe Biden seems to understand that relying on vaccines that have yet to be approved to save lives and restore the millions of jobs that were lost during the pandemic is a bad gamble. He has formed a pandemic task force, which wants Operation Warp Speed to be overhauled to focus on testing. The call for better and more extensive tests came as new U.S. cases were setting records every day, surpassing 160,000. “It’s clear that this vaccine, even if it is approved, will not be widely available for many months to come,” Mr. Biden said this week. “We are still facing a dark winter.”
Not pumping fortunes into testing technology was a big mistake – almost all the effort went into vaccine development. The highly accurate PCR tests are expensive and slow. The swabs require lab analysis that can take a day or two. The rapid antigen tests, which can produce results in 20 minutes, are cheap and easy to use, but lack the accuracy of PCR tests.
Imagine if highly accurate, fast – and inexpensive – tests had been developed. They could have been used to isolate positive cases quickly, slowing or even reversing the spread of the virus. They could have created safe corridors, allowing quarantine-free travel, or safe visits to hospitals and care homes to see infected family members. They could have reduced or eliminated lockdowns.
Slovakia has already tested two-thirds of its population and plans to test the rest. The tests have identified tens of thousands of asymptomatic cases, who have been isolated. There is a good chance that Slovakia, using mass testing alone, can stop its pandemic.
Vaccines will become a game changer in the war against the virus. Game-changing status could have belonged to testing equipment, but governments figured that out too late. Big Pharma won again.
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