The UK has become the first country in the world to approve a fully tested Covid-19 vaccine, made jointly by the American pharma giant Pfizer and a smaller German firm BioNTech, with inoculations expected to become available there from “next week”. Pfizer has also applied for emergency authorisation in the US, as has Moderna, another American company, which has co-developed its candidate with NIH. And in India SII, which has been testing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, has said it will apply for an emergency approval in two weeks. This truly is vaccine development at “pandemic speed”, highlighting how governments and other stakeholders have indeed made fighting Covid the top priority.
It is the lives and livelihoods being lost every hour every day that are pushing this warp speed. When the world is set for the worst recession since the Depression and the children are beginning to forget what school felt like, and the vaccine is the brahmastra to return us to normality, crunching everything from funding to regulatory approvals into almost unimaginable timelines is very sensible, perhaps even heroic. It must also be underlined that unlike China and Russia which authorised the use of some vaccines without waiting for the results of phase-3 trials, the above mentioned projects have not skipped any of the necessary steps, and their findings have also been opened to independent verification.
On adverse events, which are unexpected medical problems that occur during drug treatment, it must be understood that they are an unavoidable part of vaccine science. What is important is to identify whether there is a causal relationship between the vaccine agent and the adverse event, and to do this as per objective criteria. Of course even if the adverse event is found to be unconnected to the vaccine, it is important to fully take care of the concerned patient. This is basic bioethics. This is also essential to safeguard citizens’ faith in clinical trials, as well as continued participation in them. On all these complex issues, governments, regulators and vaccine makers must recognise the utmost importance of effective communication with the public. Don’t let misinformation and distrust undermine the good work of science.
Vaccine rollouts will of course usher in a new set of challenges. To make the best of the warp speed labours of the scientists, different levels of government in India must work together on businesslike plans to distribute vaccines right upto the panchayat level.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.