Coronavirus vaccine won’t bring about ‘fairytale’ ending to pandemic, expert warns

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Pictured in this video screen grab is a volunteer receiving a Russian-made polyvalent vector vaccine for COVID-19 as part of clinical trials at Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University.

Sechenov Medical University Press Office | TASS | Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage around the world, a lot of hope is being placed on finding an effective and safe vaccine against Covid-19.

That might be a mistake, according to Dale Fisher, professor of infectious diseases at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. He told CNBC Tuesday that we should manage our expectations when it comes to finding a vaccine.

“I would see the vaccine as only helping (the situation),” Fisher told CNBC’s Capital Connection. “It’s not going to be the fairytale (ending) everyone wants it to be where we’ll have an 100% effective vaccine and 100% of people will take it, and they’ll all receive it over the course of a month and we can go back to our way of life.”

He argued that there was a “pretty low benchmark” when it came to the efficacy of a vaccine, with bodies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration releasing guidance at the end of June that it “would expect that a Covid-19 vaccine would prevent disease or decrease its severity in at least 50% of people who are vaccinated.”

“This means that for half the people that get the vaccine it wouldn’t work,” Fisher said. “Most people aren’t expecting this to be 100% effective. So I think you need to have the non-pharmacological interventions, such as the mask wearing and the limiting of gatherings and things like that for a long time to come.”

There are currently just under 200 vaccine candidates in development, with 38 of these in the clinical evaluation stage, and only a handful undergoing late-stage clinical trials, according to WHO data. Most attention is being paid to candidates developed by pharma giants Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer.

Fisher noted that it was unlikely that the first coronavirus vaccine to be approved in the West (Russia has already approved its own vaccine) would prove to be the best, however.

“It’s statistically very unlikely that the first one will be the best and what would concern me is that everyone would say: ‘Oh, it’s 50% effective, or 60%, let’s do it,’ and a few months later you might find one that’s 80% effective, or you find that the first one wears off after six months and you need to do boosters again,” he said.

In addition, Fisher noted that even if one of these late-stage candidates is deemed effective and granted approval, there is the issue of mass manufacturing and distribution. Air transport industry body IATA has already warned of the logistical challenges of vaccine distribution given the special care needed when handling them.

“The WHO is hoping to be able to vaccinate 20% of the world by the end of 2021, and that’s already quite ambitious, it’s a huge exercise to vaccinate the world,” he added. 

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