It’s “the news that the world has been waiting for”, said The Times. The drug maker Pfizer announced on Monday that it had developed a vaccine against Covid-19 that was not only safe, but far more effective than anyone had imagined. Anything above 50% would have been seen as a success, but the Phase 3 trials conducted by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, a German research firm, found it to be 90% effective. The news raised hopes that a pandemic that has killed more than 1.2 million people and ravaged the global economy could finally be brought to an end: Prof Sir John Bell of Oxford University, who sits on the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, declared that life could be back to normal by spring. The Government has already ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine, enough to vaccinate up to 20 million people (each person needs two doses). Care home residents and staff, the elderly and those most at risk from Covid are at the front of the queue. Health Secretary Matt Hancock was quick to warn that there are “no guarantees” the vaccine will be approved, but he pledged that the NHS will be ready to roll it out from December if it is.
Make no mistake, said Tom Chivers on UnHerd, this is “a really big deal”. The trial has clearly shown the vaccine works, and there is every chance that others, such as the one being developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, will be effective. The results also show it’s “astonishingly safe”: there has not been a single major adverse reaction among the 20,000 volunteers who took it. Even the most sober-minded scientists are excited, said Sarah Boseley in The Guardian. Rather than injecting a weak version of the virus, as familiar vaccines do, this one uses new technology called mRNA to deliver genetic instructions prompting an immune response. If the technology works against Covid-19, scientists reckon it could be a “game-changer” in the fight against other deadly viruses too. This vaccine is the brainchild of a German-Turkish couple, Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin (see page 51), the co-founders of BioNTech, said Oliver Moody in The Times. They began working flat out on a Covid vaccine as soon as they read about a new infectious disease breaking out in Wuhan in January. Now, they’re in for a “fabulously lucrative payday”: BioNTech’s value rocketed to £16bn after the trial results were announced. Shares in Zoom, on the other hand, fell by 17%.
Yet questions about the vaccine remain, said Chris Baraniuk on Wired.co.uk. We don’t know whether it stops you getting the virus, or just stops you showing symptoms – meaning you could still infect others. Nor do we know how long immunity lasts, or if age or other health conditions make it less effective. And even if it is approved, distributing a vaccine that has to be stored at -70°C will prove a “logistical nightmare”, said Annie Sparrow in the FT. All sorts of other factors – the race to get doses, the rise of vaccine scepticism – may yet hinder the march to immunity. Even so, Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla was fully justified in celebrating “a great day for science and humanity”, said Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail. After all, since we still don’t have a vaccine against infections such as the common cold or HIV, there was no guarantee that we’d get one for Covid. That we now look destined to do so is a testament to the sheer “brilliance” of today’s scientists.