Earlier this week, the UK became the first country in the world to begin administering COVID vaccines that have undergone rigorous, open scientific testing.
The first woman in the UK to receive a vaccine was 90-year-old Margaret Keenan. Keenan, who turns 91 next week, said the injection was the “best early birthday present”.
She was the first but she certainly wont be the last. Already, the UK has vaccinated “thousands” of people up and down the country in a regimented roll out of the German-American Pfizer vaccine.
They aim to dispense 800,000 of the same vaccine in the coming weeks and up to four million by the end of the month – just over 6% of the total population of the country. The first to receive the vaccine will be those deemed at high risk of COVID-19 along with frontline medical staff treating COVID patients.
But the UK is not the first country to begin vaccinating its population. Russia and China have both been running vaccination programmes for some time now, albeit with limited information on the safety and testing their vaccines have undergone. Similarly, the US company Moderna has also created along with the UK’s own AstraZeneca vaccine created in collaboration with the University of Oxford. So, what’s the deal with all these vaccines?
Why So Many Vaccines?
Right now, it’s a little bit like the space race of the 1960s. Every country wants to be the first to create a vaccine to prove their scientists are world-beating and gain some status as the saviours of humanity from this terrible plague – and probably regain a little bit of lost respect for how they’ve dealt with the pandemic (looking at you, UK and America). That’s why every country with a top-notch biotech industry is racing to develop and test their vaccine first and coming up with entirely different results.
In this sense, competition is helping us beat COVID-19. Not every vaccine works the same way and each has its own flaws and weaknesses. The Moderna vaccine, developed by the Massachusetts-based company Moderna Inc in partnership with the US National Institute of Health, costs US $33 per shot and has to be stored at temperatures of -20°C. The Pfizer vaccine, the one the UK is currently distributing, costs US $20 a shot but has to be stored at temperatures of -70°C.
That’s fine if you’re a rich country with the infrastructure to support that kind of storage, but many developing nations like India and Brazil simply won’t be able to use those vaccines. That’s why it helps to have a range of options.
How Do They Work?
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both work by using synthetic ribonucleic acid (RNA) messengers derived from the SARS-COV-2 virus itself to generate “spike” proteins on the outside of the virus. This sets off an immune response in the body that recognises the virus and begins to attack it.
The UK AstraZeneca vaccine uses a genetically altered form of a virus that causes the common cold in chimpanzees to look and behave very similar to SARS-COV-2. That trains the body to develop specific antibodies to fight that virus meaning it will be prepared if and when the real deal shows up.
The Russian vaccine is developed by Gamaleya and named Sputnik V after the Russian satellite that was the first to be put into space (there’s that space race metaphor again). It works similarly to the Oxford one by using engineered virus particles to prompt a spike protein response in the virus and trigger an immune defence. However, the Russian vaccine, which was announced in August, was only tested on a few dozen people before its widespread release. Russia is now rolling out a mass inoculation campaign across the country, despite the vaccine still being in the testing phase. In August, Vladimir Putin boasted that his daughter was one of the first in the world to receive a COVID vaccine and she appears to be fine – if she got it.
China also has a vaccine developed by the company Sinopharm that appears to work using a dead form of the coronavirus. much like how traditional vaccines were developed. Until recently we didn’t have much info on it but the UAE recently announced that had performed phase III trials on it and concluded it safe and effective. Morocco is aiming to vaccinate 80% of its adult population using the Sinopharm vaccine, starting this month.
Are They Safe?
Very probably. The vaccines that have been tested using global-standard health examinations – Pfizer’s, Moderna’s, and AstraZeneca’s – have all passed the safety test. We still don’t have much info on the Russian and Chinese vaccines even though they are being currently rolled out.
While some might claim the vaccines have been rushed and that we don’t know the full effects of them – valid points – they have undergone the same rigorous testing processes that all vaccines go through. The reason we have produced them so quickly, which in itself is a medical marvel, is because the world needs them right now. Vaccines normally take years to develop and test but all the funding issues and red tape that normally slows these processes down have been scrapped.
That doesn’t mean safety is not the chief concern here. The leading vaccines have already been tested on tens of thousands of people and found to be in the 85-95% effective range. The AstraZeneca vaccine did however recently spark concern as health bodies recommended people with severe allergies refrain from getting it just yet.
The thing is, phase III trials can only reveal so much. Side effects that may occur in one in every thousand vaccines are likely to be picked up but the rarer side effects that occur one in every hundred thousand or a million won’t be until large portions of the population have it.
While every country in the world wants to be the first to produce an effective vaccine, no one wants to be the country to give its citizens a vaccine that has unwanted side effects, so all the efforts are being made to ensure the safety of these things.
When Will Australia Get a Vaccine?
Even though many countries around the world are rolling out vaccine programmes in the near future, the Australian Federal Government is sticking to its planned inoculation programme starting in March of 2021.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has said that “the work done in the UK will give Australia and the world very important data, very important lessons, both on the rollout and the efficacy of this particular vaccine, but vaccines more generally”.
This means we will be able to see whether there are any rare side effects to any of the vaccines as well as long term effects that haven’t yet been tested for.
Although it’s frustrating having to wait longer for a vaccine, Australia has done exceptionally well when it comes to the coronavirus and the Government is in no rush to vaccinate as it simply doesn’t have the urgency of other countries where the virus is rampant.
We have, however, secured 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine – enough for 5 million people as it’s a two-part shot – which may prove problematic due to the storage requirements. Outback towns in Aus could struggle to get this vaccine to them in the condition it needs to be in to remain effective.
Still, we’ll just have to wait and see how the vaccines work out across the rest of the world.