Life will start returning to normal by spring, says government adviser after vaccine news

‘I am really delighted with this result … 90 per cent is an amazing level of efficacy,’ says Sir John Bell

Samuel Lovett
Monday 09 November 2020 16:19 GMT
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What progress is being made with coronavirus vaccines?

Life in the UK will start returning to normal by spring next year, a scientific advisor to the government has said, after early trial data from the pharmaceutical firms Pfizer and BioNTech indicated their coronavirus vaccine is 90 per cent effective.

“I’m probably the first guy to say that but I will say that with some confidence,” said professor Sir John Bell, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

Prof Bell, who is regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said the results of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine suggested it was likely other candidates would also be effective.

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"I am really delighted with this result - it shows that you can make a vaccine against this little critter. Ninety percent is an amazing level of efficacy," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

"It rolls the pitch for other vaccines because I can't see any reason now why we shouldn't have a handful of good vaccines." 

A number of other vaccines that use the same technology platform as Pfizer are also in development, including the Moderna jab, raising hope that these candidates will be similarly effective.

Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), said: "We believe these interim results also increase the probability of success of other Covid-19 candidate vaccines which use a similar approach."

Pfizer and BioNTech announced on Monday that 94 infections had so far been recorded in their vaccine’s phase 3 trial, which has enrolled nearly 44,000 people in the US and five other countries.

Of those participants who were infected with Covid-19, it is currently unclear how many had received the vaccine versus those who had been given a placebo. The current efficacy rate implies that no more than eight volunteers will have been inoculated.

The data has yet to be publicly released or peer-reviewed, and Pfizer said the initial protection rate might change by the time the study ends.

The longevity of the immune response provoked by the mRNA-based vaccine also remains unknown.

However, the findings are the most promising indication to date that a vaccine will be effective in preventing disease among infected individuals, handing humanity a crucial tool in tackling the pandemic.

The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, 10 million of which are due to be delivered by the end of the year if regulatory approval is granted, No 10 said on Monday.

Prof Bell has said organising the distribution of the mRNA-based vaccine, which will need to be stored at temperatures as low as -80C, would be "challenging" but that the UK was well-placed to benefit once it becomes available.

"They will obviously start in the US - that's probably appropriate. BioNTech is a German company so there will be, I am sure, doses made available for Europe," he said.

"The UK has done a pre-approval agreement to purchase up 30 million doses of this vaccine, so we are very well prepared to get access to this vaccine when it becomes available.

"The manufacturing challenges are not small, so people need be ready to wait a bit to get it."

Andrew Hill, a senior visiting research fellow in the department of pharmacology at the University of Liverpool, said the issue of the cold chain - how the vaccine is stored and transported - was likely to hinder the rollout of the Pfizer vaccine.

“This could create major logistical challenges for mass treatment outside major urban areas and in low or middle income countries,” he said.

Pfizer and its German partner BioTech will continue with the phase 3 trial until 164 infections have been reported among volunteers - a figure that will give regulatory authorities a clearer idea of the vaccine’s efficacy.

This number is expected to be reached by early December in light of the rising US infection rates, Pfizer said.

The two companies said they have so far found no serious safety concerns and expect to seek US emergency use authorisation later this month.

"Today is a great day for science and humanity," Dr Albert Bourla, Pfizer's chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. 

Azra Ghani, chair in infectious diseases epidemiology at Imperial College London, said the development was “very welcome news”.

"It is important to bear in mind that these are early results based on a relatively small number of cases,” she added.

“The efficacy estimate is based on seven days of follow-up of participants following the second dose; further data in the coming weeks and months will provide a better picture of longer-term vaccine efficacy.”

WHO special envoy professor David Nabarro said even if the vaccine is approved, it does not mean that things will return to normal, adding that there it still some way to go.

“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?' Life will go back to a new normal, and we're not there yet," he told the BBC.

"Even if a vaccine arrives in the near future we've got many months of still dealing with the virus as a constant threat that we've got to make certain that we continue to do all that is necessary to solve the virus causing major problems.

"The vaccine will help, but it's not going to be a complete game changer."

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