Currently, Covid-19 has killed slightly over a million people worldwide, close to a quarter of that here in the United States. This is about equal to the annual death rate from Tuberculosis which is the most lethal infectious disease worldwide. Interestingly both are airborne respiratory diseases. The recent announcement of a ninety percent effective vaccine has buoyed hope world wide. The vaccine is being developed by a collaboration between Pfizer, an American drug manufacturer and BioNtech, a German Biotech company.
Whereas the initial data is encouraging, it is only initial data. What is yet to be determined is will the vaccine be durable, that is will its effectiveness to prevent the disease last more than a few months? Will it be effective in groups not tested? Pfizer has done a good job of including a mix of ethnic, racial, and age groups in the Phase III trial but will it work with neonates, or pregnant women, or as yet unknown variables?
Its distribution is also problematic as it requires that the vaccine be maintained at nearly minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That requires special equipment, way beyond a home or commercial freezer, which isn’t commonly available.
A real unknown is its adoptability. If and when an effective vaccine is available, will the public actually get the shot, actually two separated by two weeks? In terms of global human health, vaccinations are second only to good sanitation in improving the life and health of humanity. That said, we are living in a time of distrust in authority in general and in this case distrust in vaccinations.
Although anti-VAX (opposing vaccination) movements have waxed and waned since the time of Edward Jenner and the inception of vaccinations, the current movement began after outright fraud by Andrew Wakefield. He published a since retracted paper claiming that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. It turns out that he was paid by an attorney to fabricate data that would be to his advantage in suits by parents with autistic children against drug manufacturers.
Several entertainment personalities promoting the anti-VAX position have apparently had an inordinate influence on the public. Actress/model Jennifer Biel testified against a California bill meant to limit medical exemptions for vaccination of school children. Jim Carrey and his one-time girlfriend Jenny McCarthy, Robert Kennedy Jr, Mayim Bialik of “Big Bang Theory” fame, and others with no relevant medical experience drive the anti-Vax train.
Our current environment of anti-intellectualism and anti-authoritarianism acts to combine with the anti-Vax movement to provide a big impediment to defeating Covid-19. The announcement of preliminary positive results with a vaccine is encouraging but we have a long physical and psychological way to go before life can return to normal. At the earliest, this is estimated to be the third quarter of 2021 or later. Until then we will need to continue to – you guessed it – wash your hands, wear a mask, and maintain a proper social distance.
Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.