Those damn Brits, eh? The UK is the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, with 800,000 doses about to land and 40 million more to follow.
Elderly people in care, anyone over 80 and healthcare workers will get the first jabs. But politically the move left a bad taste in the mouth abroad.
For one thing, Pfizer has announced it won’t be meeting supply expectations on a global scale as initially pledged.
Meanwhile, Britain’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, cheesed off the Americans, French and Belgians by saying the Brits had won the race “because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”
Mr Williamson failed to mention that the roll-out isn’t an act of genius but one of desperation.
And this is where Australia not being at the front of the queue for the vaccine is a good thing.
Not sure if the decision was a good or a bad one
Dr Barbara Mintzes is Associate Professor, School of Pharmacy and Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney.
Dr Mintzes told The New Daily that the UK’s approval for emergency use “really reflects the situation with the coronavirus right now in the UK, where it’s really out of control, and in terms of numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths.”
She said the UK had a “clear rationale” as to why it went first in approving the vaccine.
“I can’t say that was a good decision or a bad decision,” said Dr Mintzes, co-author of an article on the UK roll-out at The Conversation.
“Because all of the evidence that they (the UK government) would have seen in order to approve the vaccine is not yet in the public domain,” she said.
“We’ve seen little snippets in a company press release. We don’t know in total all the results of the trials.”
Dr Mintzes said results of the trials “should absolutely be in the public domain, so that everyone internationally can take a look at it.”
The world will certainly be watching with two questions in mind. Does it work? Is it safe?
And that’s another reason why it might be better to be further back in the roll-out queue. We have about four months until the Pfizer vaccine starts going into the arms of Australians.
Instead, Britain becomes a giant experiment
Professor Catherine Bennett is chair in Epidemiology, Deakin University. She told The New Daily:
“By being forced really, to go early with the vaccine, Britain’s trying to contain a massive wave. And that creates a really important opportunity for other countries … to fully evaluate these vaccines. To learn from that practical roll-out.”
Professor Bennett said there will be much interest in how the ‘cold chain’ is managed: the need to keep the Pfizer vaccine at minus 70 degrees Celsius. This complicates roll-out to rural areas or even to care facilities. Pfizer has developed a dry-ice briefcase that can keep the vaccine safe for 10 days.
“You can have it it in the regular freezer at minus-four for only 24 hours,” said Professor Bennett. “And you can only have it out of the freezer for an hour or so before administering the vaccine. So there’s a logistic challenge there.”
If there is a break in the cold chain, “the vaccines won’t be effective,” Professor Bennett said.
Another issue is the fact that the large scale roll-out is occurring in an environment “where there is a lot of the virus circulating.”
The other big question
In the real world, the vaccine may lose a little of its effectiveness. “There’s always a bit of tempering … of the effectiveness by the time you go from efficacy in the ideal world (clinical conditions) to effectiveness in the real world.”
In trials, the Pfizer vaccine (which requires two injections, three weeks apart) delivered up to 95 per cent protection against becoming sick with COVID-19.
“Of course the question we get asked … have there been any corners cut?” said Professor Jamie Triccas, head of the Microbial Immunity and Pathogenesis Group, in the Discipline of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at the University of Sydney.
Professor Triccas said the speed of vaccine development – “in less than a year” – and now a roll-out was unprecedented.
“How we got to this place … it feels like everything’s happened really fast,” he said. “We got the data out a few weeks ago and now we have approval.”
When Professor Ticcas says “we”, he means “the world”.
Professor Triccas said the pace of development had been driven by global-scale human need. “We’ve been a bit buffered from it here (in Australia). We don’t have ICUs full of people on their death bed. We don’t have overloaded hospital wards.
“The reason we got here so quickly wasn’t any cutting of corners, so to speak, it’s more that things have been done in parallel.”
What that means is that multiple companies, countries, and laboratories have been working on a vaccine and other treatments. And there’s been so much money thrown at this particualr area of science.
Suddenly initiatives like Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed are giving different companies a billion dollars or more to find a way to rid us of the curse called COVID.
Regarding the queue, Professor Ticcas suggest that Australians on this occasion become good global citizens, count our blessings and wait for the wildfire abroad to be tended first.
And remember? The government is set to approve the Pfizer vaccine next month. Two months after that, the needles come out. Who can’t wait a little?