It is hard to create a new vaccine, but it can be harder still to distribute it. It can be expensive, too. Take last year's swine flu. For several months last summer the world held its collective breath as the pandemic unfolded. Pharmaceutical companies strove to produce a safe, effective vaccine in the shortest time and in sufficient quantities to protect first the vulnerable, and then everybody.
Before the first batches became available in September, negotiations opened with the medical profession over who was to deliver the vaccine and for how much. Ultimately, the British Medical Association agreed a deal under which GPs would be paid £5.25 for each dose administered.
With 9 million people, one-fifth of the population, earmarked to receive the jab in the first wave, including pregnant women, and people with chronic health problems, the cost worked out at almost £50m, not including the price of the vaccine itself.
Had all 132 million doses ordered by the Government been required – enough to provide two jabs for everyone in the country – the cost of administering them would have been almost £700m, or around £20,000 per GP. These sums might, theoretically, be saved by the skin patch vaccine. Come the next pandemic, instead of queueing at the surgery for the jab, patients may collect their vaccine from reception, or from the local pharmacy or nearest distribution centre of the National Pandemic Flu Service and administer it at home.
It would save patients time, the NHS cash and reduce the risk of cross infection (while waiting in the surgery for the jab) which could be crucial in a pandemic.
There are potentially even greater benefits for the developing world, where the shortage of trained medical personnel is a major barrier to the distribution of vaccines. The exodus of medical staff to better-paid jobs in the West has stripped hospitals and clinics in many countries. Diverting staff to vaccination campaigns can mean hospital wards left empty and clinics closed.
A safe vaccine that is stable, does not need to be refrigerated and is simple to self-administer, could be distributed via pharmacies and healthcare assistants further and faster than existing injectable versions, even reaching communities deep in the bush.
If the skin-patch vaccine can be shown to work in humans, it could extend the life-saving power of immunisation to another level.