So is this the big turning point? Markets certainly seem to think so. No sooner had news broken that the vaccine being developed by Pfizer and German firm BioNTech is 90 per cent effective, the FTSE surged by 5 per cent. Given that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has suggested that any vaccine that proves to be more than 50 per cent effective could be licensed, this suggests the vaccine will go on to be approved around the world.
Any vaccine that proves partly effective will be welcomed with open arms by a world which largely remains in lockdown or semi-lockdown. But does the reality live up the surge of relief which has gone around the world this morning? This morning’s announcement was of an independent review by a ‘data safety monitoring committee’ of the phase three trial of the drug. The drug had already passed its phase one and two trials, but many a vaccine fails in the phase three stage – when it is unleashed on a large number of volunteers in the community.
The Pfizer/BioNTech trial began in July, and has involved 43,538 volunteers, half of whom were given the vaccine and half of whom received a placebo. The committee issued its report when 94 of those participants had developed Covid-19 with at least one symptom. What we don’t yet know is how many of the 94 who were infected had been given the vaccine and how many were given the placebo – a vaccine can either stop you getting a virus or can mitigate the symptoms once you have it. Nor do we know how long the effect of this vaccine will last. All we know so far is that the vaccine was found to be effective 28 days after the second of the two doses.
Nor do we yet have much information on possible side-effects among the group given the vaccine. Earlier stages of the trial revealed some side-effects such as fatigue, headache and chills, but no information has yet been released on how widespread these effects were in the larger group. The fact that the trial is still ongoing, and has not been halted as the Oxford/Astra Zeneca trial briefly was in the summer, suggests that no serious illness has been traced to the vaccine.
The Pfizer vaccine is more of an unknown quantity than some of the vaccines being developed because it uses a novel technique known as mRNA – messenger RNA. The vaccine is designed to penetrate the cells and produce antigens, some of which are then displayed on the surface of the cell where they stimulate production of antibodies – molecules which then, hopefully, stop the virus invading the cells.
Assuming the vaccine does go on to be approved, how soon might it become available? Ben Osborn, Pfizer’s managing director in the UK said in July that there were 40 million doses sitting in a Belgian warehouse ready to be sent to Britain. That would be enough to treat 20 million people, given that the vaccine requires two doses. Last week, Paul Duffy, Vice President of Pfizer Global Supply, said that there is ‘very minimal’ chance of the vaccine being distributed this year, even if it is approved this month. Distribution is more likely in the first half of next year, he said.
Politically, today’s announcement will cause a stir, coming just a week after the US presidential election. Could today’s announcement have been the ‘October surprise’ that won Donald Trump re-election? Pfizer initially said it was hoping to receive results of phase three trials in October, but then changed its mind – because, it said, too few people in the trial group had developed Covid-19. Ironically, it could turn out that Trump lost the presidency because Covid-19 was not sufficiently prevalent in the community.
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