A potential Covid-19 vaccine is showing promising signs during overseas trials, and 1.5 million doses could arrive in New Zealand as early as the start of next year.
A potential vaccination for Covid-19 that’s been tested on 44,000 people is being hailed a success as early trials show it working in 90% of patients.
University of Auckland vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris said the vaccine is a huge step in the fight to eliminate the virus, and a good sign for New Zealand. The government signed an agreement last month with the vaccine’s creators, Pfizer, meaning, if it’s approved, 1.5m doses of the vaccine are due to arrive in the country early next year.
“While RNA vaccines are new and none have ever been approved for widespread use in people, there are no downsides to them that I am aware of, other than the current need for most of them to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius,,” she said in a statement. “So far this vaccine pushes all the right buttons to be successful. This is very good news indeed.”
The vaccine, which is given in two doses, is RNA-based. According to the University of Cambridge PHG Foundation, RNA vaccines work by “introducing an mRNA sequence (the molecule which tells cells what to build) which is coded for a disease specific antigen, once produced within the body, the antigen is recognised by the immune system, preparing it to fight the real thing”. (Here’s a good infographic that breaks it down, from the BBC.)
Testing is still in early stages though, and experts are warning the vaccine may have side effects that have not been noticed yet. Petousis-Harris said we don’t yet know how long the effects of the vaccine last, or whether it prevents severe disease. Some people on the trial have reported flu-like symptoms, but she said this isn’t unlike the effects of some other, common vaccines like the flu shot.
“The safety looks fine so far, nothing serious, but quite a few people receiving the vaccine can feel a bit flu-ish after for a while as their body makes an immune response – not enough to put them off getting two doses in the trial, and not unlike quite a few other routinely used vaccines.”
Covid-19 has so far killed 1.26m people worldwide, and caused immeasurable destruction to world economies and personal wellbeing. The US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, and its vaccine study partner company BioNTech SE, which together created the vaccine, have welcomed the success of the initial trials, saying today is “a great day for science and humanity”.
In a statement, Pfizer CEO Dr Albert Bourla said “we are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most… With today’s news, we are a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis”.
Research, science and innovation minister Megan Woods said delivery of the vaccine in New Zealand could happen as early as the first quarter of 2021, subject to further trials overseas.
“Medsafe is working to optimise its processes so that any promising vaccines will be fully assessed as quickly as possible against the same criteria used for all other medicines that enter New Zealand.
“Pfizer and BioNTech will keep us up to date as to when data will be available for Medsafe to begin its evaluation process.”
The 1.5m doses will be enough to vaccinate 750,000 New Zealanders, and Woods says those at high risk of contracting, spreading or suffering serious health consequences from the virus will be prioritised for these initial doses.
“Ensuring equity of outcomes is a key measure of success, including protection for Māori, Pacific peoples and our most vulnerable population groups, such as older people, disabled people, health workers, essential workers and border staff.”
UK prime minister Boris Johnson said a vaccination programme is ready to be rolled out in Britain, and announced Britain has stockpiled enough doses for a third of the population.
“If the Pfizer vaccine passes all the rigorous safety checks and is proved to be effective then we will begin a UK-wide NHS led programme of vaccine distribution,” he said at a press conference.
US president Donald Trump tweeted that the vaccine news was “great”, mentioning the stock market had boomed since the news was announced.
US president-elect Joe Biden said the news was excellent but did not change the fact that face masks, social distancing and other health measures would be needed well into next year, reported Reuters.
Global markets surged on the news, reported AP, with the S&P 500 rising 3.7% after the opening bell, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average up more than 1,300 points. Pfizer jumped more than 9% and other vaccine stocks were up as well.
Pfizer expects to produce up to 50 million vaccine doses globally in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021. The company has cautioned that the projected success rate may shift as further trials are completed.