The Oxford vaccine: the end of the beginning?

These are historic days.

Despite it all, that still feels a bit strange. Growing up in the relative quiet of the early-2000s, history seemed like something that happened a very long time ago, to people who were nothing at all like us. Of course, that wasn’t really the case, not even then. History was playing out every day – it was just easier to ignore, thanks to a strong cocktail of youthful innocence and privileged ignorance.

We can’t ignore it now, that’s for sure. I don’t think I’d ever imagined living through a global pandemic, but if I had, I’d probably have envisioned it World War Z style, zombies and all, super dramatic and mildly terrifying and more than a bit thrilling, and I would’ve been very wrong.  Living through a pandemic is boring and lonely and sad. It’s wondering when you’ll ever see your friends again. It’s reading the news obsessively or being afraid to read it at all. It’s worrying, constantly. It’s your whole world shrinking to the size of your computer screen. It’s sirens.

How will we explain this to our grandchildren? We did nothing. It hurt so much.  

And then, all of a sudden, a light at the end of this darkest of tunnels. Vaccines are like buses, it seems; you wait eons for one and then three come along all at once. First Pfizer and BioNTech, with a 90% efficacy. Then Moderna, offering 5% greater efficacy along with a vaccine that’s much easier to store and transport. And then, just yesterday, the famous Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, up to 90% effective and a fraction of the cost. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (the agency responsible for, surprise, regulation of medicines and healthcare products in the UK) is already assessing the Pfizer vaccine. The word on the street is that it could get approval for UK use this week.

This is unprecedented, we’re reminded constantly. Vaccines don’t get developed this quickly. The quickest ever vaccine development took four years, and it isn’t unusual for it to take ten or fifteen or twenty or longer. The obvious conclusion, for many, is that there’s something dodgy going on.

There are a lot of reasons the covid-19 vaccine effort has been able to proceed so quickly. Vaccine efforts for fellow coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS gave development a head-start. Many stages that usually happen sequentially have instead taken place concurrently – the MHRA, for example, has been reviewing vaccine safety data as it’s being collected, to help shorten the delay between the end of Phase 3 trials and the beginning of distribution. There’s been enough funding and enough volunteers. That’s unusual, although it shouldn’t be. 

It isn’t over, of course. It turns out that vaccinating seventy million people might actually prove quite challenging. But there’s a new hope, now; this is a new chapter in the history book. As much as I hesitate to use anything that could constitute a wartime metaphor (one of my least favourite coronavirus motifs – it’s a virus, for goodness sake, we’re not at war), nothing comes to mind quite so much as the Churchill quote:

“This isn’t the end. It isn’t even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

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