EXPLAINER

COVID-19 vaccines show strong signs of success

A COVID-19 vaccine looks likely to be available early in 2021. Picture: Shutterstock
A COVID-19 vaccine looks likely to be available early in 2021. Picture: Shutterstock

It's good to start the week with a little bit of hope.

There is a glimmer of light at the end of this dark coronavirus tunnel we've been stuck in for nearly a year.

Two research groups say their test results indicate their potential vaccines are effective.

So where do we stand?

The coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan in China in December last year - so it's coming up to its first anniversary.

By the end of last week, 56.5 million all over the world had caught COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, and 1,354,000 people had been killed by it.

Vaccines normally take many years to develop but we are now nearing the production of some in just a year. There are about 150 projects, with very hopeful signs from the front-runners.

Pfizer/BioNTech

This candidate vaccine is being developed by biotechnology researchers at BioNTech, a German company set up by a husband and wife, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, both of whose parents emigrated to Germany from Turkey.

The trial of their vaccine is being run by the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

The results show a 95 per cent success rate, a much greater effectiveness than flu vaccines, for example.

The study involved about 43,000 volunteers. Of them, 170 caught COVID-19 - but 162 of those who caught it had not been vaccinated (they had been given a jab of a harmless fake "placebo" so any psychological effects could be ruled out).

And of the 10 who had a severe bout of COVID-19, only one had been vaccinated.

One down side of the vaccine is that it needs ultra-cold storage, and that makes it harder to transport and harder to use in poorer countries which may not have the facilities.

Moderna

Another American biotechnology company, Moderna, also announced its trials seemed to be working.

The vaccine was trialled on 30,000 American adults. Some were inoculated with the vaccine and some given a placebo.

Only five of the 95 COVID-19 cases occurred in those who had been given the real vaccine while the rest had been given the placebo. The vaccine was given in two shots 28 days apart. It appeared to prevent cases of severe COVID-19.

Unlike the Pfizer substance, the Moderna one can be stored at normal refrigerator temperature.

According to the Reuters news agency, side effects (largely occurring after the second shot) included muscle aches, fever, headache and redness at the injection site.

AstraZeneca/Oxford University

The British-Swedish pharmaceutical company which is testing a potential vaccine developed at the University of Oxford said that its trial was showing promising results for older people.

The data, which was published in The Lancet medical journal last Thursday, suggested that people aged 70 and over (who are at a much higher risk of serious illness or death from the coronavirus) could build "robust immunity".

Researchers welcomed the hopeful signs but said more work needed to be done and they expected results before Christmas.

So when?

Regulators have to approve the use of both the vaccines which have had successful trials in the United States but that is being fast-tracked, with the possibility of approval by the end of the year.

That could mean that it becomes available - perhaps for healthcare workers - within two months.

In Australia, the federal government reckons both vaccines could be available here early in the new year.

The Department of Health says the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could be "available in Australia from early 2021 as part of the Australian government's COVID-19 vaccine and treatment strategy.

"The vaccine doses purchased by the Australian government will be manufactured in the United States, Belgium and Germany."

And the department says:

"If the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is successful:

  • 10 million doses will be available from early 2021;
  • These doses will be manufactured offshore; and
  • Australia will have the option to purchase additional doses where supply is available.

Manufacturing of Oxford University's vaccine began in Victoria earlier in November.

The company, CSL, is making about 30 million doses of the vaccine even though it is still going through its final clinical trials.

So if all goes according to plan, at least one vaccine could well be available in Australia at the beginning of the year.

The more, the better, according to two Australian experts.

"It's great news that multiple vaccines are in the pipeline," according to Magdalena Plebanski, professor of immunology at the RMIT, and Vasso Apostolopoulos, professor of immunology at Victoria University.

"It opens the door to the possibility we might have many successful vaccines, and be able to tailor different vaccines to people with different needs."

Who'll be first in line?

The government has published its policy: "COVID-19 vaccines will be made available for free to all Australian citizens, permanent residents, and most visa-holders."

But "COVID-19 vaccines will be accessible on a rolling basis, dependent on vaccine delivery schedules and the identification of groups for most urgent vaccination."

It's identified three "priority groups":

  • "Those who are at increased risk of exposure", which includes "health and aged care workers; other care workers, including disability support workers";
  • "Those who have an increased risk, relative to others, of developing severe disease or outcomes from COVID-19 including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, older people and people with underlying select medical conditions"; and
  • "Those working in services critical to societal functioning".

But we'll all get it eventually.

There is light at the end of the tunnel.

This story A jab of light at the end of the tunnel first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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