Covid-19 vaccine will not mean end of the pandemic, expert warns
By Nina Massey, PA Science Correspondent
A coronavirus vaccine is not a silver bullet and will not bring the pandemic to an end, an expert has said.
The vaccine announcement made by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and biotech firm BioNTech does not mean things can go back to normal, for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, the results that were announced are yet to be peer-reviewed and the vaccine has not yet received regulatory approval.
And although the UK has secured access to 40 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, it will take some time for enough of it to be produced and distributed.
But Downing Street said the UK will have procured 10 million doses to be distributed by the end of this year, if the vaccine is approved.
Dr Charlie Weller, head of the vaccines programme at the Wellcome Trust, said a vaccine is not a silver bullet, and is only one tool in tackling coronavirus.
She told the PA news agency: “We do need to be realistic about what a successful vaccine can offer.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that we’ll wake up tomorrow, we’re all given the vaccine and the pandemic ends.
“But it does give us that light at the end of the tunnel, that hope and that positivity that there is going to be an end to this pandemic.”
Dr Weller said: “But even when – I’m being very optimistic here – when the full data comes out, and that vaccine can be rolled out, this is like the best case scenario, we still won’t have enough doses for everyone.
“And this is why we need a range of vaccines, as well as treatments, and continuing those public health measures of social distancing and wearing masks.”
She added that a vaccine rollout at this scale had never been attempted in the UK and would be a huge logistical challenge.
But Dr Weller also told PA there the findings were good news and there is reason to be positive.
“It’s not that silver bullet. It is a really positive next step, but it will be the little small steps rather than the giant leap,” she said.
Asked if the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the fastest ever vaccine to be developed, Dr Weller said: “I would say absolutely, yes.
“There is so much excitement about the RNA vaccine.
“This was a technology that hadn’t been proved or validated, so this is a validation of a potentially new technology and the speed at which this has been developed is phenomenal.”
David Nabarro, co-director of Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation, said “any promising news about a vaccine is great news”, but cautioned that there is still some way to go.
He told the BBC: “Everybody who’s hearing and watching this will be saying ‘wow, does this mean that life can go back to normal in the near future?’
“We’re not there yet.
“We do need to be following through on all the basic rules that we now know are important for dealing with this virus – our own behaviour, the way in which governments run their health systems, and also unity between nations.
“And I just want to stress that these principles that we’ve been working for over the last 10 months are still absolutely essential.
“The vaccine will help, but it’s not going to be a complete game changer.”
But Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of the Government’s vaccine taskforce, indicated people could look forward to a normal life in the coming months.
Asked if people could look forward to a return to normal life by the spring, Sir John told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One: “Yes, yes, yes, yes. I am probably the first guy to say that but I will say that with some confidence.”
However, he also highlighted that it would be a challenge to organise the distribution of a vaccine in the UK.
Experts have said the full effect of a vaccine on transmission in the population will not be known until one is in circulation and more data is collected.
Data released about the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine does not indicate how long immunity lasts, but suggests protection is achieved 28 days after vaccination.
It is also not yet known how well the vaccine works in the most high risk, elderly people.
While other experts have said, should a vaccine become available early next year, it may take more than a year for everyone in the UK to be immunised against Covid-19.
Professor Nilay Shah, head of the department of chemical engineering at Imperial College London, said the findings reported by Pfizer/BioNTech are good news.
He said that even though the trial is not finished, the results suggest that the trial is on the right track.
Asked if it meant the end of the pandemic, Prof Shah told PA: “Not for some time.
“However, if the 90% efficiency is borne out over time and we were able to start mass vaccination in the new year, we should be able to vaccinate millions of people in priority groups in the months that followed, and we would be able to ease restrictions over time.”
He added that until the first wave of people – perhaps the 50+ age group, health and social care workers and those with health conditions – are vaccinated, a certain level of restrictions will be in place.
Prof Shah said: “We would then need to think about how to work through the next wave.
“Ideally we would like to get to a very high level of vaccinations before removing restrictions entirely.”