Well…..2020…..what a year it was. A new virus that had never been detected spreading across the whole world, closing the borders of many countries, and forcing governments to make never-seen-before decisions that would cause massive financial implications. It is said to have originated in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019 and has now reached most countries around the world. But now that the virus has been around for just over a year, scientists, engineers, and biologists have been able to develop vaccines that could see the beginning of the end to this pandemic and teach us invaluable lessons about how we live and work with others.
The United Kingdom has recently ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, said to vaccinate 20 million people, and 100 million doses (according to GOV.UK) of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that have both been approved for use and have started to be administrated by doctors in the NHS. This total is said to be enough to vaccinate all over 16s in the UK population. The vaccine consists of two doses with the second dose being administered 12 weeks after the first to allow for as many people to be vaccinated as possible in a short period. This was increased from the original 3 weeks due to concerns about the new, faster-spreading variant of the virus in the UK. Priority for these vaccines will be given to people in care homes and those who care for them.
It is no secret that with the joy of the development of a vaccine such as this in a very (very) short space of time, that some people, as with any vaccine, will be hesitant about taking it or completely against it. Some people’s reasons for not taking the potentially life-saving vaccine remain unknown but for the majority, the speed at which the vaccine has been made is worrying. The years of rigorous research, testing and approvals have been sped up five-fold which makes many concerned about the validity of the vaccine and whether it is safe to distribute. However, what some people fail to realise is, although we do not know much about this new virus, the way the vaccine will work is very much the same and here is how.
Most vaccines that have been developed in the past have undergone extensive and thorough testing which ensures that they are safe before they can be distributed and administered. Each vaccine goes through phases which ensures that the vaccine produces an immune response. This part of the testing is not carried out on humans initially to evaluate its safety and to prevent potential side effects. If the vaccine triggers an immune response in animals, it is then tested in human clinal trials. This is process contains 3 phases.
Phases 1: The vaccine is given to a small number of volunteers to assess its safety and confirm that it generates an immune response, and the correct quantity is given in each dose.
Phase 2: The vaccine is then given to several hundred volunteers to further assess its safety and ability to generate an immune response. There are usually multiple trials in this phase in people of various age groups.
Phase 3: The vaccine is next given to thousands of volunteers – and compared to a similar group of people who didn’t get the vaccine. This is done to determine if the vaccine is effective against the disease and protects those with the vaccine.
During phase two and phase three of the trials, the volunteers and the scientists conducting the study are shielded from knowing which volunteers had received the vaccine being tested. This is known as ‘blinding’ and is done to ensure that neither the volunteer nor the scientist is biased in assessing the usefulness at the end of the trial. Once the results of the clinical trials are available, officials in each country review the data meticulously to decide whether to authorise the vaccine or not. Once the vaccine is deemed to be safe, they are then distributed to the public. However, as the vaccines are being distributed, it is crucial that the effects of the vaccine are monitored for their effectiveness and safety. This allows scientists to keep track of the vaccine’s impact. So how does the vaccine work once they have been approved?
The vaccine enters the body through an injection, usually in the upper arm. The vaccine contains bits of genetic code to cause an immune response and is called an mRNA vaccine. This is a harmless virus altered to look like the current virus which triggers the body’s immune system to build immunity to Covid. This means that if the person is infected by the virus later, the immune system recognises the virus and is ready to attack it, protecting the person from Covid.
The worrying news of a new variant has meant that the effectiveness of this vaccine is now being questioned by scientists as well as the public. This new variant, a mutation of Cov-Sars-2, is said to be spreading faster and infecting more people than the first, causing cases to rise exponentially in the last few months in most of South East England. However, it has been said by multiple doctors and government advisors in the UK, that the current vaccines cause a “broad immune response” so the chance of the vaccines being ineffective is very small.
So far, 2021 has seen the rollout of the new vaccines developed by both Oxford and Pfizer, giving us hope that sometime soon, we may be able to return to some sort of normality. However, this new variant has taught us that the plans we make and the precautions we take may not always lead to the results we expect. All we can do now is continue to follow the guidelines set by the government and have patience because as history has shown us, these things do not last forever.
“While the most vulnerable are immunised, I urge everybody to continue following the restrictions so we can keep cases down and protect our loved ones.”
–Matt Hancock- England Health Secretary, January 2020