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  • Brendan Shaw

COVID-19 vaccination a 12-month success for science, governments and industry

Brendan Shaw

The news just in that the United Kingdom has formally approved the roll out of mass vaccinations for COVID-19 from next week is a moment to mark.

The UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approved the 95% effective vaccine to vaccinate the British population yesterday after and "an extremely thorough and scientifically rigorous review of all the evidence".

From next week, the UK's National Health Service will start rolling out the initial 800,000 doses to the UK's elderly population in aged care facilities, aged care staff, NHS staff and patients in accordance as part of its broader rollout strategy for 80 million doses to continue into 2021.

While the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is the first one to be approved in the UK, there are now a swathe of other COVID-19 vaccines developed by a range of other pharmaceutical and biotech companies that will be reviewed for approval in the coming weeks and months.

In fact, China and Russia had approved other COVID-19 vaccines for early or limited use earlier in the year, but this was done without the results of Phase 3 clinical trial results which at the time triggered criticism from some experts that those vaccines were being rushed out too early.

Twelve months from start to finish

Today, there are 51 vaccines for COVID-19 in clinical development, many of which increasingly look like they will be approved in the coming weeks and months.

The fact that the UK will commence its COVID-19 mass vaccination from next week is pretty extraordinary when you consider how far we have come in just 12 months.

Remember that 12 months ago much of the world hadn't heard about the coronavirus that was to become COVID-19 until December 2019.

The first documented cases of COVID-19 were on 1 December 2019.

The fact that only 12 months later we have a vaccine for a disease that a year earlier we didn't even know existed is truly remarkable.

Vaccines normally take somewhere between 5 - 10 years to develop. But in the case of COVID-19 multiple companies, governments and regulators have been able to compress that normally long development process into a few months.

As one commentator has tweeted, "This will go down in history as one of science and medical research's greatest achievements. Perhaps the most impressive."

How did we do it?

The reason we have been able to get to this point is to the extraordinary efforts of everyone involved.

Our deep science and understanding of viruses has allowed us to develop the science of the disease and develop vaccines.

Governments prioritising research, funding and rollout of the vaccines has been critical. Whether it's the British government's development programs and investments in science, Chinese government investment programs, the United States Government's Operation Warp Speed, the international COVAX initiative, various other countries' research programs in vaccine development, or preparing on-the-ground rollout of vaccines like the NHS has in the UK, government investment in health funding has been critical.

Also critical has been having a large, commercially successful biopharmaceutical industry. It has meant we can develop vaccines at all.

While people sometimes criticise the industry, the fact is if we did not have a commercially successful biopharmaceutical industry, we would probably not have the range and depth of COVID-19 vaccines that we have and we would, in all probability, be waiting for years if a vaccine came at all.

And the reason that companies like AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are in a position to make the commitments they have o sell the vaccine at cost and make no profit during the pandemic at all is because they have been commercially successful in other disease areas with other medicines and vaccines for many years.

A key component in getting to where we are has been the commercial success of the biopharmaceutical industry and its ability to successfully partner with governments, scientists and other stakeholders in delivering on a major global health priority.

Not everyone will get vaccine straight away

The approval of a vaccine in the UK for mass vaccination ahead of other countries does beg questions about 'vaccine nationalism' and to what extent we really are 'all in this together'.

Organisations like the World Health Organization have been urging a united, international approach to developing and providing a vaccine to everyone through, for example, the COVAX facility.

However, many countries with the resources have invested money in securing early access to available doses for their own populations.

This is entirely understandable from a national government and a national population standpoint.

But it does raise some serious questions.

If we're supposed to be fighting a global pandemic, should we not have a global response to it, rather than some countries securing the limited stocks of available vaccines first?

If we are, indeed, 'all in this together', should this extend to how we vaccinate everyone in the world?

Thankfully, again, it may be that our extensive biopharmaceutical industry will be able to mass produce the variety of vaccines in good time.

But it does suggest at some point we will have to ask ourselves whether we have learned the lessons from previous pandemics.

How do we balance the need for timely access for the different peoples of the the world with the obvious need to also ensure timely development of the vaccine?

This is a critical question. There's no point having 'timely access' to a vaccine if the vaccine doesn't exist in the first place.

And there are lessons about how governments and countries have handled this pandemic that should be learned in the preparation for future pandemics.

History suggests that we often don't always learn the lessons from pandemics.

One suspects there is further work to be done here.

A great step forward

In any event, we should acknowledge how far we have come in 12 months in tackling COVID-19 and acknowledge what we have achieved.

There is still a long way to go, but we are making good progress thanks to the science, the investment, the priority and the collaboration between different sectors and groups in society.

This might be an important guide for future action, too.

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