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OP-ED: Let’s be optimistic, not complacent

  • Published at 06:36 pm November 17th, 2020
coronavirus covid-19 vaccine
Representational photo Bigstock

A vaccine may be on the way, but we shouldn’t let down our guard until then

The breakthrough in the development of an effective vaccine against the deadliest virus of the century has so inspired and accelerated our optimism that even the most ardent scientific mind cast away any caution, repudiated by the excitement and enthusiasm. 

Professor Sir John Bell, Regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of the UK government’s vaccine taskforce, stated with plenteous conviction and confidence that the invention and development of a vaccine, effective for over 90% of people inoculated in preventing Covid-19 infection, would be distributed early, and would be instrumental in returning life to normal by the coming spring. 

Professor Bell commented to the members of the UK parliament that normalcy by spring time was a distinct possibility provided the distribution of the vaccine went without any glitch. Professor Bell had to tone down his enthusiasm, as he was muzzled by higher authorities and was obliged to mention that refusal by people to be vaccinated could cause concern, but his enthusiasm continued, and he reiterated his view on returning to normal by coming spring. 

Since the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine started, and early trial phases demonstrated encouraging results on safety and immune responses, the real concern for everyone has been if any successfully developed vaccine would be effective in preventing the Covid infection. I only recently mentioned in the Dhaka Tribune’s “Surgeon’s Note” that research led by Professor David Matthews, from Bristol’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, had concluded that the Oxford coronavirus vaccine functions comprehensively in the human body after inoculation and builds strong immunity to Covid-19, preventing the disease and not merely lessening the severity of infection. 

The vaccine developed by German company BioNTech and American pharmaceutical company Pfizer is claimed to have outperformed expectations and has demonstrated effectiveness over 90%. The news of the Covid vaccine breakthrough sparked the tales of a series of financial success-stories too, particularly the personalities steering the development, behind the scene, of not-so-well-known German company BioNTech. 

Overnight, the company’s value has ascended to a staggering $22 billion. BioNTech was founded about 12 years ago by German scientists Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, who with the Austrian oncologist Christoph Huber, developed its vaccine. In contrast to the conventional vaccine that takes genetic information from a virus and cultivates it in a human cell, the mRNA method team led by Uğur merely required the virus’s genetic code, thus shortening the production process by many months. 

Two doses of the vaccine are used at a time difference of three weeks, and provide possible immunity for at least a year. Uğur Şahin, also the chief executive of BioNTech, firmly believes that the vaccine is capable of halting the pandemic as even prevention of symptomatic infection would dramatically improve the situation. Though the technology of the vaccine by BioNTech is different from that of the Oxford vaccine, both are capable of imparting strong immune responses through both antibody and T-cell mechanism.

The jointly developed vaccine candidate had outperformed expectations in its vital phase-3 trial, stopping people from falling ill, but the data has not been peer reviewed and is yet to be published in the scientific journals, and this failure makes it impossible for the scientific community to decide on the acceptability and the authenticity of the claim for the vaccine without reservation. 

Information is also not available if the vaccine protects against Covid infection, or allows infection but not development of Covid symptoms. The effectivity of the vaccine in asymptomatic Covid patients is also unknown. There is, however, speculation that if the vaccine prevents infection, by default, it should also prevent transmission of infection between individuals. 

But if it allows asymptomatic infection, it may not be effective in preventing transmission of the disease, opening up of all possibilities of the disease manifestations on the newly infected individual. Usually, though the effectivity of a vaccine is less pronounced in the old age group, it is impossible to accurately comment on the effectivity of BioNTech and Pfizer vaccines on the elderly. Analysis of data is also not available, which is essential to deduce the reasons for a proportion of people’s failure to respond to the vaccine. 

Though enthusiasm provides a healthy buzz through a body’s natural endorphins, over-enthusiasm and enthusiasm mistimed or misplaced, often may create the unpleasant emotions of disappointments. In case of Professor Bell, enthusiasm may have been mistimed, particularly when expectation of improvement is not due for another several months and the infection rate and mortality from this deadly virus has exceeded this month those observed in the spring and the summer in many European countries and the US. 

In America, the coronavirus surge has shattered daily records for cases and hospital admissions and is set to last longer. It is now being estimated that the daily incidents may exceed a million a day towards the end of the current year. European authorities are especially concerned that the news of the breakthrough in developing a potent vaccine has caused disproportionate and premature enthusiasm regarding expectations of normal life soon, with hope of a near-normal Christmas. 

This hope and expectation gravely worried European officials, who believe that such overzealous aspirations would surely bring complacency leading to the ignoring of measures designed to prevent worsening of the winter surge of Covid infection. Their concern is that if people become complacent and decide to ignore lockdowns and public health measures against Covid, many would miss the opportunity to observe the days when our life returns to normal, as a vaccine would not come soon enough for many.

Dr Raqibul Mohammad Anwar is Specialist Surgeon, and Global Health Policy and Planning Expert, Retired Colonel, Royal Army Medical Corps, UK Armed Forces.

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