Pfizer pulls ahead in the vaccine race

If the pharmaceutical firm's jab is what the world hopes, it breaks new ground in the world's fight against the pandemic

(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 8, 2020, a nurse shows a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine produced by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech at Sao Lucas Hospital in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil.  Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac Biotech on November 10, 2020 stood by the safety of its Covid-19 vaccine after Brazilian regulators halted trials in the South American country citing an "adverse incident" involving a volunteer recipient. / AFP / SILVIO AVILA
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Pfizer and its German partner company BioNTech have announced early results from Phase-3 trials of their Covid-19 vaccine. Data suggest the vaccine is over 90 per cent effective, well ahead of previous hopes for 60-70 per cent efficacy.

If this vaccine is what the world hopes it is, it represents a breakthrough in the fight against Covid-19. The international community must now ask itself three questions. Will the vaccine actually achieve what trial results claim? Will it immunise in the long term? And is the world prepared to distribute it equitably?

Time – and more research – will tell. While we wait, we should seek comfort in the fact that science on the issue is advancing daily. The UAE is currently hosting a Phase-3 trial which involved 31,000 volunteers in the country, in addition to Bahrain and Jordan.

More than 150 vaccines are in development globally, in what has been labelled a Covid-19 vaccine “space race”. The competitive fervour is welcome. The fact that Pfizer’s Phase-3 trial involved 43,000 people and shows such promising results provides confidence in its success. But other, similar trials are taking place in the UAE, UK, US, Russia, China and elsewhere, and they are instrumental in boosting the chances of success.

It is still too early to be sure of any vaccine candidate’s long-term efficacy. There are some reports, however, which suggest that most who recover from Covid-19 have some degree of lasting immunity, raising hopes that vaccines will offer similar protection. But the situation is still far from clear. A less ideal – but still workable – scenario would be a vaccine similar to the seasonal flu jab, which needs updating and a new inoculation every year. This is more labour-intensive, but researchers and health systems around the world are at least familiar with such yearly procedures.

There are justified concerns around whether stocks will be made widely available. News in August of US President Donald Trump stockpiling 100 million doses, while good for the US, raised concerns over a shortage for the rest of the world. President-elect Joe Biden’s desire to pursue foreign policy through building multilateral consensus could be an opportunity to pursue a more global approach.

Such consensus could be channelled through bodies advocating a global strategy. Valuable work is being conducted by Gavi, a public-private partnership for a “global vaccine alliance”, and its CoVax programme, which aims for “equitable distribution of eventual Covid-19 vaccines”.

The UAE is playing a significant role in empowering such bodies, including a $5 million contribution to Gavi in recent years. Along with their counterparts in partner nations, UAE policymakers have realised that immunity means less if it is concentrated entirely in the developed world. Global immunity is the only sustainable public-health solution for all countries, rich and poor.

There are justified concerns around the availability of vaccine supplies globally and whether stocks will be made widely available

It is, moreover, the only sustainable solution for long-term economic recovery. Waves of lockdowns have pushed millions around the world into unemployment or working from home. In the world’s poorest nations, working from home is the height of privilege.

It is also a privilege that the scientific and medical community, in all countries, can scarcely afford. During the first peak of infections this year, nations sprinted to produce ventilators. Those were designed and made by people, collaborating in person. Behind Pfizer’s vaccine is a husband and wife “dream team”. Their work was completed with a large team, also in person, in a laboratory.

There are still challenges ahead. But the news of a breakthrough in vaccine development provides a much-needed shot in the arm as this difficult year nears its end.