Pfizer’s announcement that its Coronavirus vaccine has exited phase 3 trials with a preliminary effectiveness of 90% has caused jubilation around the world at the possibility that we could return to some semblance of normality in just a few months. Coupled with numerous ongoing vaccine developments globally, the question now seems not if, but when will an effective vaccine will come into circulation. Naturally questions of logistics and the priority of distribution are already being discussed, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying the scientific community will advise on who receives the vaccine first: most likely the elderly and frontline care home staff. The distribution and administration of the vaccine could be aided by the army, if necessary. Health Secretary Matthew Hancock has asked the NHS to be ready to deploy a vaccine from the start of December. So, is an exit strategy for COVID-19 on the horizon?
Addressing the nation this week, Boris Johnson’s tone was decidedly cautious. The governmental strategy still for the moment rests upon lockdown compliance and mass testing. Mass testing has entered a new phase as the army has overseen and administered voluntary testing to the city of Liverpool, with Nottingham next in the pipeline. Rapid testing kits are being dispatched in volume to both local authorities and universities and Matthew Hancock has announced that NHS workers will now be tested twice a week for COVID-19. £150 million has been allocated to GPs to facilitate the roll out of the vaccine, with enough currently on order to vaccinate 20 million people. All this is positive news for those looking forward to a more open, unrestricted world.
But these hopes are tempered by a number of unknowns. What percentage of the public will need to have the vaccine before the threat of the virus abates is unknown. How long it will take to approve, manufacture, distribute and administer the huge number of vaccinations required is also unknown. And the issue is complicated further by the fact that Pfizer is not a British company and US needs will be prioritised first. The seriousness of this obstacle has been addressed by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam, who has stated that the government may use a less effective vaccine than the one produced by Pfizer if it is available to be deployed more quickly. For the moment however, it certainly seems that in the short term, lockdown 2.0 will resemble the first one, with similar strategic aims.
While SAGE states that the R number is now somewhere between 1.3 and 1.1, it is also being unofficially reported that the R rate has finally dipped below 1, based on modelling provided by the Covid Symptom Study app, which is collated via the health reports of over a million users. It may be the case that the peak of the second wave has now passed, and an end could be in sight. Whether or not infections will rise after lockdown restrictions are lifted remains to be seen, especially as it is rumoured that Rishi Sunak is planning to announce the return of the Eat out to Help out scheme in winter to revive the flagging economy. The fact that Britain has now passed the sombre milestone of 50,000 dead brings home the possibility that another spike in the disease is not to be ruled out, considering the potentially disastrous consequences.
It has been revealed that there will be no fast tracking of the vaccine for the Royals, government officials, or the wealthy. But while many are clamouring to be vaccinated, there remains a sizable segment of the population who are sceptical about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine as well as the civil liberty implications of mass vaccination programmes. At present, there are no plans on the table for mandatory vaccinations, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come out in a statement to denounce anti-vax rhetoric as ‘nonsense’. Nevertheless, if a significant enough portion of the population refuses to be vaccinated, this may call the whole project into question.
Thus, while the promised vaccine does provide hope that a covid exit strategy may be on the horizon, there are significant obstacles before this could become a viable reality. As Northern Ireland extends its lockdown measures, and the UK reports a record number of people testing positive last week, a magic bullet remains for the moment elusive. While the world seeks a conclusive exit strategy, the uncertainty in the meanwhile will continue to be a challenging time for businesses and the public.