Announcements from pharmaceutical companies claiming being close to a breakthrough to help bring an end to the ongoing global health crisis appears to have given a false sense of safety to some. It has prompted people to think the nightmare of the last nine months is over and throw caution to the wind as they start ignoring social distancing and other precautionary measures.
Last week, Pfizer and BioNTech announced a vaccine jointly developed which they claim is 90 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19 infections in ongoing Phase 3 trials. The companies expect to supply up to 50mn vaccine doses globally in 2020, and up to 1.3bn doses in 2021.
But will a vaccine alone be enough to stop the pandemic and allow life to return to normal any time soon? Only time will tell, according to experts. They believe the worst isn’t over and reiterate the need to continue observing social distancing and other precautionary measures.
“While we are optimistic following the recent news about the 90 per cent effectiveness of the vaccine from Pfizer, we should also be realistic in our expectations. The vaccine is still in testing phase and once it is approved, the demand for it and other possible vaccines will be high which will make countries wait for what they need,” said Dr Sulaiman al Shereiqi, senior specialist in public health at the Ministry of Heath.
“Therefore, until the time health authorities announce that there no need for public health measures, we should all follow them strictly. We all hope that soon we will have a vaccine and herd immunity in the public to stop the transmission of infection and control the disease. But we must also bear in mind that such type of viruses are known to mutate and re-emerge in new a form that would require a new vaccine,” he added.
According to Dr Shereiqi, he can’t emphasise enough the need to remember the lessons of the last nine months. “We shouldn’t forget them once this pandemic is over, especially the habits of washing hands with soap and water frequently and wearing masks that we have cultivated.”
Dr K P Raman, chairman and cardiologist – Al Hayat International Hospital, said, “There are talks about vaccine trials and news about it to be launched soon for the public. This is very positive and a moment to cheer in these dark times that COVID-19 has plunged the world into since March this year.”
But he’s quick to add that we need to be more circumspect. “By the time the vaccine is commercially manufactured and distributed in every nook and corner of the world, it may take as long as one year from now. So we need not go overboard with the news of the vaccine’s arrival. There are still many things not yet clarified about the vaccine.”
Among the questions foremost on Dr Raman’s mind is – what percentage of people will develop immunity? He’s also eager to know how long the immunity lasts. “Can the immunity be measured by some tests? Are there any unknown or immeasurable immune mechanisms playing a role in provision or non-provision of immunity?” he asked.
US biotech firm Moderna, several state-run Chinese labs, and a European project led by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca are also thought to be closing in on potentially viable vaccines.
Two Russian COVID-19 vaccines have been registered for use even before clinical trials were completed, but have not been widely accepted outside of Russia.
“All these are using different antigenic stimuli to evoke immunity in the recipient. We still do not know comparative merits and demerits of these vaccines. Even the potential side effects are not yet known. Therefore, I have guarded enthusiasm and optimism. With time, the mystery will unfold but ultimately man will beat the virus,” Dr Raman said.
Pfizer said it is gathering two months of safety data following the final dose – a requirement of the US Food and Drug Administration – to qualify for Emergency Use Authorisation, which it expects by the third week in November.