I’m not one to embrace hype. But every so often, there’s a scientific advance that has the potential to change everything. In the past month, we’ve had three.
Not only is no-kill, lab-grown meat going on sale for the first time. Not only has Google’s DeepMind AI made an impressive cut into the Gordian Knot of predicting the structure of proteins. But a revolutionary type of vaccine looks to have given us the answer to our Covid-19 woes. The Pfizer vaccine, the first that’s based on inserting the virus’s RNA into human cells, has been temporarily approved for use by the UK’s health regulator, the MHRA. The first 800,000 doses are currently on the way to the UK. They’ll be in use within a week.
This gives us all the more reason to be extra careful to avoid spreading the virus during the winter, especially if meeting friends and family for Christmas or other celebrations: imagine how awful it would be to infect your parents or grandparents just weeks or months before they could have been vaccinated. We should redouble our efforts to have people lower their risks by avoiding the Three Cs – closed-in spaces, crowded places and close contact with others – as well as by wearing masks indoors. And we should advise anyone who plans to visit relatives, particularly older ones, over the festive period to isolate themselves for a week beforehand.
Oddly, the vaccine announcement hasn’t been greeted with flowers in the street by the “lockdown-sceptic” contingent. It’s part of a strange pattern where those who were most opposed to lockdown are also opposed to – or indifferent towards – the things which could help us escape it, from masks to vaccines. The only way to explain it is a kind of reflexive, unthinking contrarianism – not the sort of devil’s-advocate contrarianism that helps you fine-tune arguments, but the sort that leads you down a bizarre path away from reality.
In some prominent cases lockdown scepticism has mutated into full-blown anti-vaccinationism. A new wave of these beliefs (now sometimes called “vaccine hesitancy”, for the less hidebound cases) is going to be a major challenge over the next year. Given that we don’t know how to persuade people out of vaccine-sceptical views, we should focus on incentives. The mere idea of getting back to normal should be enough of a spur, but a “vaccine passport” system, where businesses only serve those who’ve been immunised, would give people another reason to get the jab. The government should also prepare some alternatives in case uptake isn’t high enough to produce herd immunity: paying people to have the vaccine might be enough.
We can be absolutely certain that some people who’ve taken the vaccine will later develop health problems – even if these have nothing to do with the vaccine. If you vaccinate this many people, many of whom would go on to get ill no matter what, this is guaranteed. And yet, inevitably, the anti-vaxxers (and some aspects of the media) will seize on such cases, adding to the ever-present level of anxiety about vaccines, and likely prolonging the pandemic.
The only way to combat this – aside from shaming anyone who draws the fallacious “It was after the vaccine, therefore the vaccine caused it” conclusion – is for vaccine-makers to be absolutely 100 per cent transparent about all aspects of their product and its safety. I’d hope that complete data on the Pfizer trial, which have been seen by the MHRA, will be published sooner rather than later – this week, if possible.
Which brings us to the awkward issue of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca trial. Our very own UK-developed vaccine, of which we’ve purchased 100 million does, is subject to some serious questions about its efficacy and, alas, its safety. Nothing is clear yet, but it’s exactly this kind of uncertainty that can fuel anti-vax beliefs. Thankfully, AstraZeneca plans to run an entirely new trial to allay those concerns and, again, it should publish all its data for the world to see.
These are real problems: the nightmare of 2020 isn’t over yet. But we shouldn’t let them stop us from appreciating the incredible scientific advance that has been made on the RNA-based vaccine. By condensing a years-long vaccine development process into a few months, the vaccine creators have come as close as any scientist can to saving the world. For some things, a little bit of hype is entirely deserved.