After the euphoria of breakthrough data on Pfizer’s vaccine candidate, realisation is dawning on the scale of the challenge of inoculating an entire species.
The world is mid-way through a second wave of the virus which is on track to become more deadly than the first. Infection numbers and deaths in many parts of the western world now exceed those in the first wave of COVID-19 and we are still weeks if not months away from the best-case scenario date for any vaccine approval.
After those approvals, countries will have to grapple with the herculean challenge of distributing and administering any vaccine once approved, a scenario where less affluent countries are bound to be significantly disadvantaged, in part due to vaccine deals which favour the wealthier countries and also due to the headache of storing and distributing a vaccine.
US states are now re-imposing restrictions as the second wave engulfs America. Governors in states including New York, Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa and Utah have all put curbs in place as the daily US infection rate has soared past 144,000, with hospitalisations exceeding 65,000. New York is considering closing schools again.
A similar scenario is playing out in the UK, now over a week into a second national lockdown. Infections reached a daily record of 33,470 on Thursday, dashing hopes that it was levelling off. Cases among the over 80s, who face significantly elevated levels of risk, are now rising faster than any other age group.
France on Thursday confirmed it was extending its lockdown for at least two weeks, with its caseload rising to nearly 36,000 and the number of people in hospitals now exceeding those during its first wave in the spring. Russia, Croatia and Greece each recorded daily records in their rates of infection, though Germany’s disease control agency said there were some signs that the infection rate was starting to plateau there.
In stark contrast is Australia, which for now is showing early signs of having conquered its coronavirus outbreak. Earlier in the year an outbreak in the state of Victoria sparked a draconian lockdown in the state. Now Victoria has reached 14 consecutive days without recording a single new coronavirus case.
Operation Warp Speed, the flagship US vaccine programme set up under President Donald Trump, should be repurposed to focus on diagnostics, a member of President Elect Joe Biden’s incoming advisory team told the FT.
Celine Gounder said that the ability to get on top of the epidemic in the US has been hampered by the lack of fast, accurate testing. Asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 account for some 40% of cases and health officials have argued that it isn’t possible really to get on top of the virus without better testing.
The Chief Executive of BioNTech, the German biotech which partnered with Pfizer on the development of its vaccine candidate, has defended his company against accusations that it deliberately delayed news of the positive trial data until after the election. Ugur Sahin, whose previously unknown company has been catapulted to a market value of some $21 billion based on the positive data, hit back at accusations by US President Donald Trump that his company and Pfizer had deliberately held data back until after the outcome of the election was known.
“We don’t play politics”, Sahin told The Guardian, adding that he and Pfizer learned of the data less than 24 hours before its publication on Monday.
A paper by the Lancet on Friday morning appears to confirm previous data that show people from ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 compared to white people.
Researchers at Leicester and Nottingham universities analysed 50 other studies and concluded that black and Asian people were more likely to catch COVID-19. It concluded that “Asians may be at higher risk of ITU admission and death”. The analysis seems likely to fuel pressure on governments to prioritise people from ethnic minority backgrounds when allocating vaccine supplies.
Wall Street ended sharply lower on Thursday as the raging virus numbers ended a multi-day rally fuelled by the resolution of the US elections and Monday’s news on the vaccine. Asian markets were cautiously higher into Friday.
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