Just over a year after the first recorded case of Coronavirus-19, a disease which has claimed over 1.3 million lives so far, hope may be in sight, in the form of not one but four, or even more vaccines, which if successful, may allow us to return to life as we knew it before the pandemic, or at least some semblance of it.

The development of a vaccine or vaccines is a vital breakthrough because at the present time there is insufficient data to prove that having had the virus makes you immune to it. Nor is it a guarantee that you won’t pass it on to others.

The front runners are as follows, the Oxford vaccine, manufactured by AstraZeneca and codenamed Talent, that from Pfizer/BioNTech, dubbed Courageous, a vaccine from the US based company Moderna, as well as Sputnik V, developed at the National Research Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology, Moscow.

I’d like to concentrate on the first three, with the UK government having procured orders for 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, another 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and a further 5 million units of that produced by Moderna.

The Oxford vaccine is made from a version of the common cold virus in chimpanzees, weakened so it cannot grow in humans. A portion of genetic material from coronavirus -19 is inserted into this, so that when injected into humans it stimulates an immune response against COVID-19.

Results so far have been very promising, with over 99% of participants developing antibodies to COVID-19 within 2 weeks of the second dose. T-cell responses, another marker of how well the immune system responds, were also very robust. Most pleasingly, not only was the vaccine well tolerated by older aged volunteers, (in fact they reported fewer side effects) but their immune response was equivalent to that of their younger counterparts.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, with a claimed efficacy of over 90%, again involves two shots, given three weeks apart. It uses experimental technology, whereby a portion of the virus’s genetic code, known as RNA, is injected directly. Once inside the body, this code causes the formation of a portion of the virus, against which the body’s immune system reacts. Again, the team behind this breakthrough advise that it is equally efficacious in the over 65 age group, as well as in all ethnicities.

The Moderna vaccine uses the same technology as the Pfizer product, with a promised effectiveness of 95%. It also relies on two jabs, given four weeks apart. However, unlike the Pfizer vaccine, which has to be stored at minus 70 to 75 degrees Celsius, the Moderna vaccine will survive at a much more modest minus 20 degrees C. It can be kept in a standard fridge for a month, while that from Pfizer will only last in these conditions for five days.

The quoted figures above regarding success rates are preliminary data, with phase 3 trials still ongoing. Phase 1 trials test if a drug is safe and tolerated (usually on a small number of healthy volunteers), phase two is to demonstrate how well the drug works (its efficacy), with phase 3 being the final hurdle before product is approved by the appropriate regulatory authorities, after which it can be released onto the market.

Although there isn’t a definite date for vaccination to commence, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer has advised “As UK citizens, we are incredibly lucky we will be one of the very first nations to get a vaccine”.

At this very moment, the NHS is recruiting a virtual army of healthcare providers, from all disciplines, including those recently retired, to assist in a mass vaccination programme, the moment the green light is given.

Age is the biggest risk factor for succumbing to COVID, and the UK vaccination programme will address the most vulnerable members of society first, with those involved in providing care next in line.

For herd immunity, that being needed to protect those who cannot receive the vaccine for whatever reason, it is estimated that at least 60-70% of the globe needs to be vaccinated.

Unfortunately, and it goes without saying, many nations will not have the resources for this, so a successful vaccination programme will certainly require a large amount of charitable donations.

With the festive season almost upon us, I would gently urge everyone not to give into temptation to break the rules as they stand, and remember the motto “Hands, Face, Space”. Hopefully next year will be a much better year.

Dr. Zak Uddin

General Practitioner

Website – www.doctorzak.co.uk

Twitter - @AskDoctorZak