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Covid-19 Vaccine

By Shaun Holt

Politicians and policy makers have talked about a Covid-19 vaccine being key to life getting back to normal.

The New Zealand Prime Minister has said that border restrictions would probably last until a vaccine is developed, and scientists have said that a vaccine is the only clear exit strategy that will allow New Zealand to return to normality. Similar statements have been made in other countries including the UK and USA.

However, if this is the case then our borders may never open and life will not return to normal any time soon as there is no guarantee that a vaccine will be developed within the next year or two, or even at all.

COVID-19 is one of many coronaviruses. These are common viruses that cause an infection in the nose, sinuses, or upper throat. Most coronaviruses are not particularly dangerous - many common colds are caused by coronaviruses. COVID-19 is definitely more dangerous of course and, at the time of writing, over 50 studies have shown it to be around 3 times more deadly than influenza.

We have many vaccines for viral diseases including influenza, polio, chickenpox, yellow fever, hepatitis A, tetanus, measles, mumps and diphtheria and so it seems obvious that we will soon have one for COVID-19, especially as a huge global research effort is underway. Around 100 different potential vaccines have already been developed and tested to some degree.

Most researchers think that the quickest time frame for a COVID-19 vaccine to be developed is 12-18 months. Most of this time is spent on the large clinical trials that have to be done in order to prove that it is effective and safe. Safety is actually more important here - if the vaccine is to be given to hundreds of millions of people it has to be incredibly safe. And even if developed within 12-18 months, it could still be many months later until the required hundreds of millions of vaccine doses are produced, and longer still for health systems to administer the vaccine to the public.

It is too technical to go into here, but it will be very hard to make a COVID-19 vaccine. This is illustrated by the fact that scientists have not previously been able to make vaccines for any coronaviruses, including more severe ones such as SARS and MERS.

And even if a vaccine is developed, it may not be 100% effective. For example, the influenza vaccine varies each year and is usually around 50% effective.

I do not want to talk about Government policy too much, but I would not base any policies on having a COVID-19 vaccine any time soon. And even though I am a huge advocate of vaccination, I would be nervous of having a rushed vaccine, particularly as the chance of death in younger and healthier people from COVID-19 is negligible.