Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.
The phase three trial for one of the leading contenders for a Covid-19 vaccine has been paused. The collaboration between Oxford University and AstraZeneca has been put on hold after a patient became unwell.
The official line from the Government and developers has been that this is perfectly normal procedure – such setbacks are common in clinical trials, and we should not worry prematurely. Matt Hancock has described it as “not necessarily a setback,” while an AstraZeneca statement said it “is a routine action…In large trials, illnesses will happen by chance.”
This is true, and we do not have any reason to believe the incident is a significant issue for the trial. But it highlights a disturbing vulnerability in the Government’s current strategy.
That a pause has prompted so much speculation shows how heavily we have become invested in the idea that a vaccine will be the solution to the current pandemic.
The development of a number of promising candidates has been used to justify the economic and social disruption which has been imposed to counter the virus’ spread. That we will be promptly able to eradicate Covid-19 once we have a working vaccine is assumed by many, including those in Government steering the response, to be a given. Boris Johnson has said he expects a “significant return to normality” by Christmas.
While never explicitly stating it, this Government’s entire coronavirus response has been based on this assumption that the Coronavirus is a short-term problem to which a vaccine is the solution. Hancock reiterated only a few days ago that “the best way out of this coronavirus pandemic remains a vaccine.”
If it were to be condensed into one of the three-line stanzas which attempt to communicate to the public the ever-changing guidance, it might be: “Lock everything down; get everyone vaccinated; beat the coronavirus.”
But what happens if we are not able to achieve that second step?
The technical, social and political challenges in producing an effective vaccine over such a short timeframe are myriad. Even if the Oxford vaccine does prove to be safe and effective and enters mass production by early next year (which is a big if), getting the public to accept it widely will be a challenge at a time when faith in the Government’s handling of the response is low.
A programme to vaccinate the majority of citizens across the UK will be extraordinarily difficult. Achieving sufficiently high coverage to prevent further spread and to protect vulnerable individuals requires a high level of compliance. If too low a fraction of the population is vaccinated, it will have little effect in preventing further spread. But many younger citizens will not be interested, as the threat to them is so minimal. Others will be concerned about the possible side effects of a vaccine which has been rushed through production at breakneck speed.
Yet for vaccination to be successful in protecting vulnerable populations, these groups must be included. And with many on the Conservative backbenches already uncomfortable with the Government’s growing encroachment on civil liberties, it seems unlikely there will be sufficient political capital available to force citizens to comply.
Even if we manage to produce a safe and effective vaccine and achieve mass inoculation, return to life as normal will not be as simple as flicking a switch back on again. Disruption to industries and supply chains will take time to subside, and in some cases the damage will be permanent.
The Government should spend less time thinking about life after Covid-19 and more time planning how to safely life and work alongside it. The coronavirus is unlikely to be gone by Christmas, and in the meantime, we must consider if the self-inflicted damage caused by this government’s response could begin to outweigh the threat of the virus itself.