Aside from a handful of anti-vaxxers, virtually everyone would leap at the prospect of a vaccine earning us an early exit from the COVID-19 crisis. The only snag is that we do not have a vaccine that is proven to work, let alone safe to use, and that it is improbable that we will have one for some time. Anthony Fauci has suggested 12 to 18 months as the minimum time for a vaccine to be ready and former federal vaccine scientist Rick Bright told the Senate last week that even 18 months is an ‘aggressive timetable’. In Britain, the Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty is more optimistic: on April 22, he said the chances of a vaccine being ready within the next year are ‘incredibly small’.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to learn that Britain’s government has agreed a deal with AstraZeneca and Oxford University to produce 30 million shots of a vaccine by this September. According to Alok Sharma at Sunday night’s briefing, the shots will only actually be produced ‘if the vaccine proves successful’. But no one from the government has explained how full and proper trials could be completed in time for 30 million shots to be available by September – a miracle which would contradict previous statements by Chris Whitty.
Does the UK government know something the rest of us don’t, or is it yet another case of ministers having larger wallets than brains? Circumstantial evidence, sadly, would appear to indicate the latter. Human trials of the vaccine only began four weeks ago, and Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, is on record as saying that the first signs of whether it will work or not won’t be available until mid-June. All we know so far is that the vaccine appears to have been successful in half a dozen monkeys. Moreover, last week Sir John Bell said that the trial had hit a snag: COVID-19 infection rates in the community have now fallen so low that the scientists leading the trials have been forced to take them into hospitals.
It is all too easy to see those shots appearing on a shelf in the burgeoning National Health Service surplus store of goods that have been ordered to help fight the pandemic but that have proved to be of no use. They would join, for example, the two million antibody tests that the British government paid £16 million ($19.5 million) to import from China before deciding they weren’t reliable enough. The government is now trying to get some of the money back. There were 250 ventilators, also from China, which proved not to work after they arrived in early April. Then there were the 400,000 gowns ordered from Turkey which were impounded after it was found they failed to conform with UK standards.
Things work differently in a crisis, obviously. There is a desperation to get things done. It is easy to understand why the government should want these vaccines by September, ahead of a possible second peak of the virus in fall or winter. Money has to be spent on research without knowing if anything good will come it. Even so, actually ordering mass-produced vaccine shots before we know if they will even work is looking like another possible folly in a crisis which has produced plenty of them already.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.