Big news is that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for emergency supplies in Britain and could give us a glimpse of what’s to come in Australia. In November, our government secured a contract for 10 million doses of this vaccine.
Before the vaccine can be administered in Australia, there are a few hoops that need to be cleared. First, it must be licenced by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which tests vaccines and medicines to determine their safety, consistency and effectiveness before they can be administered here.
Next it needs to be made in millions. The vaccine will be produced overseas and exported to Australia. Scaling up structures for manufacturing and transporting a highly specialised commodity on such a large scale is no small feat. And this particular vaccine needs to remain very cold – about-70°C – or it will not work, so we’re going to need a new method to transport and store it (known as cold-chain storage).
If these hoops are cleared, the vaccine may be available in Australia by March. But since it takes time to produce, we’re not all going to be able to get it at once. It would make sense for our off-line health staff to be the first in line to get it, to protect them while they look after the rest of us. There may also be situations in which more vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly, are vaccinated.
Is life going back to normal after we get the vaccine? Unfortunately, it will probably take a while before life resembles our pre-COVID-19 days, and new habits like social distancing, wearing masks, and sanitising our hands will be with us for some time to come.
Pfizer and BioNTech state that their vaccine is 95 per cent effective in the prevention of COVID-19 disease. That means that for every 100 people vaccinated, only five are likely to still have COVID-19 disease. But what we don’t know yet is if immunised people can still pick up the virus from others and spread it anyway without necessarily displaying any disease.
In order to protect the population from COVID-19, we need to avoid the spread of the virus. Otherwise those who cannot get the vaccine – such as those with compromised immune systems – will still be able to receive it from others.
Another point to be considered is that older people’s immune systems also respond differently to younger people. We know that further studies are ongoing in older adults, but we have not yet seen proof that this vaccine would work for them.
This vaccine is good news, as it will protect some people from getting sick and alleviate some of the burden on our health systems. However a single vaccine deployment cannot completely wipe out COVID-19 from our culture.