Much relief could be heard yesterday with the announcement from Pfizer that its vaccine is “more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19”. The press release explains: “The case split between vaccinated individuals and those who received the placebo indicates a vaccine efficacy rate above 90%, at seven days after the second dose.”
But is it all it seems?
Ross Clark in the Spectator sounds a note of caution.
The Pfizer/BioNTech trial began in July, and has involved 43,538 volunteers, half of whom were given the vaccine and half of whom received a placebo. The committee issued its report when 94 of those participants had developed COVID-19 with at least one symptom. What we don’t yet know is how many of the 94 who were infected had been given the vaccine and how many were given the placebo – a vaccine can either stop you getting a virus or can mitigate the symptoms once you have it. Nor do we know how long the effect of this vaccine will last. All we know so far is that the vaccine was found to be effective 28 days after the second of the two doses.
Nor do we yet have much information on possible side-effects among the group given the vaccine. Earlier stages of the trial revealed some side-effects such as fatigue, headache and chills, but no information has yet been released on how widespread these effects were in the larger group. The fact that the trial is still ongoing, and has not been halted as the Oxford/Astra Zeneca trial briefly was in the summer, suggests that no serious illness has been traced to the vaccine.
Although Ross says in the Telegraph that an effective vaccine might be enough to save Boris’s premiership.
How soon will it be available if approved? Ross in the Spectator again:
Ben Osborn, Pfizer’s managing director in the UK said in July that there were 40 million doses sitting in a Belgian warehouse ready to be sent to Britain. That would be enough to treat 20 million people, given that the vaccine requires two doses. Last week, Paul Duffy, Vice President of Pfizer Global Supply, said that there is “very minimal” chance of the vaccine being distributed this year, even if it is approved this month. Distribution is more likely in the first half of next year, he said.
No 10 gave it a cautious welcome.
Speaking this lunchtime, the Prime Minister’s spokesman called the results “promising” but warned “there are no guarantees”. With limited information available in terms of the full results from the trial so far, they went on to say: “We will know if the vaccine is both safe and effective once the safety data is published, it’s only then that licensing authorities can consider it.”
Barry Norris of Argonaut Capital Partners – an expert on the biotech sector – told Lockdown Sceptics:
As we had expected, the Pfizer/BioNTech trial delivered a positive efficacy result.
There were two surprising elements: The timing of the announcement and the claim of 90% efficacy.
There are 44,000 people in the trial with half in the placebo. They were supposed to read out after just 32 cases in total. It was thought that the trial hadn’t yet read out because they hadn’t yet had enough infections. The trial actually read out after 94 cases, so they delayed it on purpose apparently as a result of “discussions with the FDA”. This smells like they didn’t want to announce it pre-Presidential election in case the ‘good news’ helped the incumbent. Trump must be fuming.
They claim 90% efficacy. What in practice does that mean? When they say efficacy they don’t give us the exact numbers but you should assume around 85 out of the 94 symptomatic cases were in the control group that received the placebo and just nine in the treatment group which received the vaccine. They simply measured symptomatic infection: are you a symptomatic sufferer of COVID-19 or not? They didn’t measure severity. Nearly all the volunteers in the trials are also all healthy adults, under 55 years old. There is no data for the old and already sick, although they will say at 90% efficacy in healthy adults it has a decent chance of working on them too.
It is important to note that the trial does not measure the vaccine’s ability to stop virus transmission between humans which is the supposed rationale for lockdown. The manufacturers and their cheerleaders will say it’s still a lockdown-buster because its failure to interrupt transmission doesn’t matter if the virus doesn’t develop into the disease. But that depends on whether it works for the vulnerable which we don’t know yet.
In terms of timing, they are suggesting mass vaccinations in time for the 2021/2022 coronavirus season which suggests at least another six months of virus suppression policies, including lockdowns.
One final consideration: the Pfizer vaccine won’t work against the ‘mink virus’ or plenty of other strains.
But let’s not be too churlish. If it really is 90% effective, protects the weak as well as the strong, has no major side effects and turns out to be as effective against other strains – all big ifs – it may help to calm everybody down. As Charles Mackay said in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
Stop Press: According to the Times, BioNTech founders Ozlem Tureci and Ugur Sahin, a German-Turkish couple, may see their personal fortune reach £3 billion.
Stop Press 2: Sarah Knapton in the Telegraph reports there are fears that, even if an effective vaccine becomes available, many people will refuse it because they feel it has been rushed out in just a few months. The Royal Society is so concerned about uptake that it is calling for anti-vaxxers to be prosecuted if they spread misinformation about the dangers.