It sounds like a good title for an arty novel doesn't it? "Remember February by tim james" a thoughtful coming-of-age drama about a farmhand who learns to reconcile his youth with an ever-changing political climate. But actually, I want to think back to February 2020 when “coronavirus” was just a media fire-alarm happening somewhere else. In early March I wrote an essay about the virus because I was getting asked questions by my students and I wanted to give them solid facts. The UK death toll stood at a wistful 2 and all we had to worry about was coughing into elbows and washing hands.
In April I wrote a follow-up, reflecting on how quickly the world had changed and how science was ultimately going to win this war. Now, at the end of the year, I can finally say that my faith has been rewarded. On 9th November the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, in collaboration with BioNTech, announced a 90% effective vaccine. A week later, on 16th November, Moderna announced their own vaccine working to 93%, and on the 23rd, AstraZeneca announced one with 70%-90% efficacy depending on dose.
Finally, on 2nd December, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (the UK version of the FDA in America) confirmed that the Pfizer vaccine passes all the safety requirements needed to be administered. A monumental and unprecedented task now gets underway as governments seek to inoculate the human race, bringing this pandemic to its knees. Now we face a new problem. As that creepy bloke in Chernobyl put it, we need to...
The Trouble With Science
One of the problems we’ve faced over the last few months is that the public has gotten a really good look at how science actually works and they haven’t liked it. The false starts, the mistakes and the endless contradictions about masks can make it look like scientists don’t know what they’re doing.
The slow and self-doubting pace at which science moves, compared to the high speed at which the mass media reports news has led to an information vacuum. It’s nobody’s fault of course – we want the media to report news quickly and we want science to go slowly – but put them together and we end up with gaps. It’s only natural that those gaps have been filled with conspiracy. Conspiracies are always easy to understand and always provide clear answers. Science, which is cautious, counterintuitive and complicated, can’t compete.
There’s no way I can address every bit of nonsense flying around the web, but I will mention the most entertaining thing I’ve heard – that the vaccine contains nanotech devices used to spy on us. Let’s ignore the fact that the first people getting the vaccine will be 80-year-olds in care homes (who probably don’t pose much threat to the government), the obvious logical oversight is that if the government did want to use microchips to spy on us it would be a lot easier to put them in the water supply or...y'know...the phones we all have?
No government has come out of this happy because every single one has lost money. Even the pharmaceutical giants set to make billions from the vaccines have suffered under the pandemic. This pandemic wasn't engineered for anyone's benefit, because nobody has. Except for Netflix of course. They've don'e alright. Hmmmmmm...
But why so much anxiety and suspicion directed toward vaccines? When a new cough-drop comes onto the market you don’t get people panicking about how it contains bits of dead baby (another conspiracy I’ve heard this week). The irony is that people will gladly go to a club and snort a mystery white powder off the back of a toilet tank, but won’t touch something which has been carefully regulated by biologists…people are weird sometimes.
I guess it’s because vaccines are different to other chemicals. It’s someone shoving a metal spike into your arm and squirting stuff up your arteries. That’s going to give anyone the heebie-jeebies. So, in an effort to give people some reassurance, I’m going to tackle the main questions they might have about the new vaccines.
What Does It Do?
Vaccines are not medicines which treat or cure a virus. Unlike a bacteria which can be killed with anti-biotics, a virus particle is not living, so the best defence is your body’s own immune system. Your blood is full of microscopic bio-machines which have been honed over 3 billion years to destroy viruses. What a vaccine does is allow this immune system to get some practice, so when you get infected with the real thing (and you will) it knows what to do. This means vaccines can cause symptoms of the disease they’re protecting against because your body reacts as if it were happening for real. The sickness you sometimes feel after a vaccine is (counterintuitively) a sign that it’s working.
Should It Be Compulsory?
Some people aren't able to recieve vaccines because of medical complications (I work with someone in that category). These people are only safe from a virus if everyone around them has had the shot. While every individual should have a choice over whether they “take their chances”…by not getting a vaccine they risk becoming a carrier which can infect someone who doesn’t have the choice. In other words: they are forcing someone else to take their chances. That’s an ethically tough nut to crack and I don't have an answer to it. Is a person's freedom to refuse a vaccine also their freedom to risk infecting someone who can't?
Isn't 90% Effective, a bit Suspicious?
Most vaccines work by injecting a person with a disabled version of the virus (see my earlier blog) and usually boast a 60/70% success rate. These new ones are in the 90% region - doesn’t that seem a little too good to be true?
The reason these new vaccines seem better is because they’re based on a new design. What's called an mRNA mechanism. mRNA (messenger-Ribose Nucleic Acid) is a molecule every living thing has in its cells, similar to DNA. The way these vaccines work is by injecting you with mRNA that codes for a “spike protein”. It’s basically the bit of coronavirus your immune system recognises. Once you’ve been injected with it, your body manufactures the coronavirus spike proteins and your body gets to work building a response. The mRNA then breaks down and you’re in the clear. You don’t even have to inject someone with the virus itself...which is arguably safer.
The fact that the efficiency is so high is not because the companies are boasting, it’s because they’re using an apparently better technique. This might be the biological equivalent of moving from rotary dial phones to smart phones – not something to be wary of, something to be excited about! In the movies, a global crisis always leads to a scientist discovering a miracle solution at the finale which changes the world forever...this may have actually happened.
Hasn’t It Been Rushed?
This is a common criticism and it sounds fair. A vaccine normally takes ten years to make. These ones have been done in ten months. Are they cutting corners?
One: The reason vaccines normally take ten years isn’t because of design and testing, it’s because nobody funds vaccine science. A research group has to apply for a grant, pitch a reason why they should get it, wait for the decision, get rejected, try again, and then use what little money they’re finally awarded to do meagre research. That can take a decade.
The shocking thing isn’t that they’ve made these vaccines so fast…it’s the fact that governments are normally so reticent to fund science that it takes ten years to make something which should take less than one. Frankly, if people had started funding coronavirus research back in 2012 when we identified it as a possible risk, the pandemic could have been avoided. Moral of the story: give scientists money. Especially me...Buy my books.
Two: Actually, we’ve been designing these vaccines for a long time. The basic science of the mRNA technique was discovered in 1994 (https://openarchive.ki.se/xmlui/handle/10616/43798). All we had to do this year was tailor the existing technology for Covid-19 specifically.
Furthermore, back in 2011 when the Ebola epidemic was at full throttle, scientists realised that it takes too long to make an emergency vaccine and it was only a matter of time before something worse than Ebola came along (which it has), so they started prepping back then. These vaccines have been in the pipeline for a while. Scientists actually do know what they’re doing..
Is It Safe?
The Pfizer vaccine was tested on 43,000 people and none of them got ill. If you vaccinated one person a day it would take 117 years to reach the number of people in the Pfizer trial.
Is this a 100% guarantee that nobody anywhere in the world will react badly? Unfortunately, no, that’s impossible in biology. There’s 7.5 billion humans on the planet and someone, somewhere reacts badly to everything. Some people even have an allergy to water (called aguagenic urticaria) which means even water isn’t technically 100% safe.
This vaccine is so safe however that we don’t even know the percentage of people who will react badly because it’s yet to happen. We can say with confidence though, that the dangers are less than 0.002% (1 person in 43,000). For context that means you’re at least three times more likely to get struck by lightning than react badly to the Pfizer vaccine. Yes, OK, it will probably happen to someone at some point and it will be all over the news, but that's the reality of having a varied human population.
You might of course feel that a vaccine which is at least 99.998% safe is too much of a risk and that’s your prerogative. But you have to be consistent. You should also avoid eating any new food because you can’t guarantee you won’t have a reaction to it. You also shouldn't use any cosmetic products like soap, shampoo, toothpaste, perfume or make-up because the FDA doesn't have a single standard or regulated list of safety tests a cosmetic product has to be put through. All of the chemicals in your bathroom and kitchen have been put through less safety checking than the vaccine.
Also, just a cynical point to throw out there: Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca etc. are all putting themselves on the line. If the vaccines weren’t safe that would be the end of them as companies. It’s not in their financial interests to cut corners or rush. Do you really think multinational companies worth hundreds of billions are going to jeapordise their own existence by putting an unsafe product out there? Especially a product they know lots of people will take and which will be scrutinised by the media. If the vaccine wasn’t safe – it wouldn’t be on the market.
What About Thalidomide?
This is the go-to example of when science got a medicine wrong. A morning-sickness pill which caused birth defects in babies during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s a horror-story for sure, but the thing is, back in the 1950s there were no safety regulations whatsoever! Thalidomide wasn’t even tested on pregnant animals. One of the whole reasons we have safety testing processes now is because of Thalidomide. I get why it’s scary, but refusing a new medicine because of Thalidomide is the equivalent of refusing to drive a car fitted with seatbelts because cars in the 1950s didn't have them.
What About Long Term Effects?
This is perhaps the only reasonable objection to a new medicine. There’s no way of predicting the future with vaccines so how can we be sure there aren't long-term effects? Well, we can't guarantee anything, but we can compare it to vaccines historically, and the news is very comforting.
There are zero cases in medical history of vaccines which were later recalled because it turned out they had negative long term side effects. There was a bit of a scare in 1997 when it was suspected the Influenza H vaccine might lead to an increased risk of diabetes, but this has been roundly disproved since then.
While there is no way of promising the new vaccine doesn't have long term side-effects, you have to apply a little common sense. Refusing the vaccine because it might be the first case in history of a vaccine having negative long term effects is like refusing to buy a new flavour of crisps just in case it's the first time crisps turn out to cause lung cancer.
Is The Political Approval Trustworthy?
The UK’s MHRA has approved the vaccine quickly - have they cut corners? See my earlier point about timescales. The safety testing for the Pfizer covid vaccine has gone through the same stages as every other vaccine. I suppose it’s a shame that we’re so unfamiliar with government efficiency that when we actually see it, we’re suspicious of it – but this vaccine hasn't been rushed. It's been funded.
Also, it isn’t in the government’s interest to approve a vaccine in a sloppy fashion. They know that approving an unsafe vaccine is a one-way ticket to losing the next election. Which means if they’ve given it the thumbs up, it’s as trustworthy as it’s ever going to be.
Why Haven't The Companies Made The Formula Public?
This is about business, not conspiracy. A pharmaceutical company needs to have its formula patented and protected so other companies don't copy it. You might think that's pretty cutthroat because it's making money off illness, but if pharmaceutical companies lost money, they wouldn't have enough to keep making medicines when the next pandemic arises. Making profit, if that profit is used to make better medical treatments in future, isn't evil. It's basic economics.
There's also the fact that you wouldn't want some second-rate independent yahoo with no biochemical training having a go at making the vaccine in his garden shed and infecting his whole neighborhood. If money is going into a company, it means they're held to a high standard (companies who don't deliver first-rate products go bankrupt).
As much as I like the idea of everyone being able to get the vaccine by the end of December...I don't like the idea of people trying to crudely make it themselves, getting it wrong, and making the whole thing worse. The fact that the companies are protecting their formula is not something to be suspicious of. It's actually reassuring because it means they think they've got something worth protecting. If their vaccine recipe didn't work, they wouldn't be keeping it under lock and key. I promise, not everything to do with money is bad.
Is This Really Happening?
2020 has been such a kick in the groin for the human race that we almost don't believe the season finale could be uplifting. We've grown so accustomed to the drudgery of bad news that when something good comes along, we're skeptical. It's almost as if the entire human race is suffering from a mass case of depression where we've become incapable of feeling hopeful and we doubt hope itself. But these vaccines are something to sit up and take notice of. Hope never went away.
We're not clear of the danger and the virus is still out there...but this is the beginning of the victory. The happy ending Hollywood movies have always promised us is genuinely approaching. This is the gift-horse we need to look in the eye. This one is real. The pandemic will end and it's scientists who are going to do it.
The banner phrase on my homepage is also the last sentence for all three of my books. It's a phrase I've used for years but it's no longer a mantra. It's now officially a goddamn fact...
SCIENCE WILL SAVE OUR SPECIES!!!
I love science, let me tell you why.