A miracle Covid-19 vaccine the first time round? An unrealistic hope, warns British government adviser

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust. Source: Wellcome Trust.

The first Covid-19 vaccine may only be partially effective. As the worldwide scramble for a Covid-19 vaccine continues into the fall, we must avoid false hopes that the first vaccine will suddenly solve the pandemic, warns Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, the second-largest health charity in the world. Writing in British newspaper the Observer, Farrar said the first vaccine may only be partially effective in some age groups like younger people, and may not confer long-lasting immunity to the coronavirus.

“The first generation of Covid-19 vaccines will likely only be partially effective,” warns Farrar, who is also a senior adviser to the British government.

“They may not be completely effective in all ages, or appropriate in all health systems. It’s very possible they may only provide immunity for a limited period, even as short as 12 to 18 months.”

The first Covid-19 vaccine will still be useful. Although the first vaccine may not be perfect, it will still be useful to cushion the blow dealt by the pandemic, emphasizes Farrar. After all, an effective vaccine is still the world’s “only true exit strategy”, alongside Covid-19 treatments - which remain scarce, too expensive, or useful in certain patients, especially those that are critically ill.

Why trust in a vaccine matters. Despite the likely limitations of the first coronavirus vaccine, there is hope that a successful one will be rolled out soon, given the unprecedented speed of R&D in past months - with a whopping 50 vaccines in clinical trials, and a dozen in late-stage clinical trials. However, politicians and public health professionals should not undermine public trust in vaccines. According to Farrar, eroding trust in a Covid-19 vaccine could have serious public health repercussions in some countries, especially the United States, which has borne the heaviest brunt of the coronavirus in the whole world.

Says Farrar:

“Trust is our most important tool in public health and we must do everything we can to avoid putting that in doubt. It cannot be bought on short-term promises.”

“Already, there are worrying signs of diminishing trust in potential Covid-19 vaccines….This must not become a polarised political issue; public health is too important.”

Rigorous and transparent vaccine assessment is crucial. Transparent and rigorous assessment of Covid-19 vaccines - without political interference - is “non-negotiable”, emphasizes Farrar. His comments come as countries around the world are itching to roll-out vaccines as fast as possible, despite robust evidence to support their efficacy and safety. Details:

  • Last month, Russian authorities hastily approved the highly politicised Sputnik vaccine ahead of large-scale Phase III trials. Phase III are vital to ensure vaccines are effective and do not trigger serious side-effects.

  • Just last week, US President Trump announced that a vaccine could be rolled-out in the US as soon as October, right before the country braces for elections.

Let’s get real. No vaccine will work as if by magic, returning us to ‘normal’