Don’t count on a coronavirus vaccine any time soon

It would be foolhardy to base public policy decisions on the unrealistic prospect of a quick-fix vaccine.

By Lawrence Solomon, originally published on Medium.com

Once we have a Covid-19 vaccine, estimated to take 12 to 18 months, life will get back to normal, say our public health authorities. But although some 40 vaccines are under development with several already having begun trials, wishful thinking drives that estimate, not sober analysis.

The United States Health and Human Services predicted in 1984 that we would have an HIV/AIDS vaccine in two years, yet one hasn’t materialized in the subsequent decades, despite a relentless, multi-billion-dollar effort in its pursuit. Likewise, almost two decades of research into SARS and one into MERS — both of them coronaviruses — have yet to produce a vaccine.

Unlike polio, measles and numerous other diseases for which vaccines have been developed, coronavirus-class diseases to date haven’t lent themselves to vaccine production. In fact, no vaccine has ever met the government’s test for safety for any of the six other coronaviruses known to infect humans.

While Covid-19 could prove to be an exception, it would be prudent for our medical authorities to level with us. Cheerleaders for a vaccine such as the ubiquitous Dr. Anthony Fauci, who recently told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham that the pandemic is “not going to be over … until we have a scientifically sound, safe and effective vaccine” need to stand down and come clean. When he says, as he earlier did at one of the Trump administration’s daily briefings, that getting a vaccine “is going to take a year, a year and a half, at least,” he should clarify that “at least” could mean “not in our lifetimes.”

The failure to produce a vaccine may not be calamitous, and for two reasons.

First, vaccines are designed to create “herd immunity” by triggering antibodies in enough of the population to protect those who can’t be inoculated, typically because their immune systems are too frail to accept even a low-dose vaccine.

But herd immunity can be obtained organically, by antibodies created after a natural infection of the body. A Mass. General study of 200 randomly selected residents on the street in Chelsea, Massachusetts, found one-third tested positive for the coronavirus, an indication that they would soon have antibodies to the virus, making them immune. Other Chelsea residents who tested negative could have already defeated the disease and already have antibodies, raising the prospect that Chelsea could soon reach herd immunity.

Sweden, a maverick that refused to lock down its economy, could reach herd immunity for parts of the country in a matter of weeks, says Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist. “According to our modellers, we are starting to see so many immune people in the population in Stockholm that it is starting to have an effect on the spread of the infection.”

Although Sweden has come under withering criticism from the international press for letting its populace decide for itself whether to social distance or frequent its favorite cafes and restaurants, Sweden has fared no worse than many of its neighbors. It is in fact a median Western European country, with as many locked-down European countries having higher coronavirus death rates per capita as lower.

Second, the absence of a vaccine would likely not be calamitous because a great many promising therapies seem to be at hand, several of them game-changers. A French study of 1061 patients treated with a cocktail including the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine found “98% of patients cured so far” and that “No cardiac toxicity was observed.” The Israelis have a placenta-based cell therapy product that to date has led to a 100% survival rate and in a University of Chicago clinical trial using Gilead Sciences’ antiviral Remdesivir, rapid recoveries in fever and respiratory symptoms led to the discharge of nearly all patients in less than a week.

In therapies the medical industry does have a good track record. Dr. Fauci admitted as much in the case of HIV/AIDS, where “we have spectacularly effective treatment. People who invariably would have died years ago right now are leading essentially normal lives.”

The end to the Covid-19 story has yet to be written. Because of a paucity of data, little about it can now be said with confidence, including whether it is a mass killer or no more deadly than the seasonal flu. What we can say with confidence is that it would be foolhardy to base public policy decisions on the unrealistic prospect of a quick-fix vaccine when the human body’s own immune system, and the medical industries track record at coming up with therapies, provide much sounder bases for tackling this and future pandemics.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Consumer Policy Institute.

About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .

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