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Breakthrough: A working Coronavirus vaccine is on the way

It’s only been a few months, but it sure does feel like the Covid crisis is dragging on forever. Anything that can bring it to a relatively swift conclusion sometime next year would be a tremendous victory for the world, and a monumental scientific achievement.

And our neighbours over at the University of Oxford certainly sound confident:

According to Adrian Hill, director of Oxford’s Jenner Institute and one of the authors of the paper, the new vaccine stimulated a strong immune response and appears to be well tolerated and safe. It generated both antibodies and “an excellent” T-cell response. Antibodies and T-cells are the two principal arms of the immune system. The former recognise, lock onto and disable pathogens. The latter recognise and kill infected body cells, to stop viruses reproducing inside them. Dr Hill says that the antibody levels seen in the trial are similar to those observed in natural infections and that the T-cell responses are “very high”.

Interestingly, the science seems to be moving towards a consensus that t-cells, maybe even more than antibodies, are the key to helping the body fight coronavirus. In fact, one French study suggested that it’s possible to beat the virus with t-cells alone, and no antibodies at all. The Oxford vaccine’s efficacy in producing those T-cells might make it a winner.

Two big questions remain, though, with any coronavirus vaccine. The first is this: Is there any point, and does the immunity last? Those are two questions, but they’re really just one question, because if the immunity you get from a vaccine is only temporary, then what’s the point? You’ll just be infected in a few months’ time anyway:

Disturbing new revelations that permanent immunity to the coronavirus may not be possible have jeopardized vaccine development and reinforced a decision by scientists at UCSF and affiliated laboratories to focus exclusively on treatments.

Several recent studies conducted around the world indicate that the human body does not retain the antibodies that build up during infections, meaning there may be no lasting immunity to COVID-19 after people recover.

The big hope here is that the body’s immune memory will kick in if you’re subsequently infected. After all, when you get the MMR as a child, your measles antibodies decline quickly, and probably wouldn’t show up in your system today as an adult. But your body retains the ability to make them very quickly, so your immune response is boosted when you’re attacked by the virus as an adult. If that’s the case with Coronavirus too, then immune memory shouldn’t be such a big problem, unless the virus dramatically mutates, like the cold and flu do. We just don’t know the answer to that one yet.

The second big question, of course, is whether the vaccine is safe. Testing so far suggests that it is, and that the side effects are mild, but widespread:

The data, published in the medical journal the Lancet, also show that the vaccine caused side effects, including fever, headaches, muscle aches, and injection site reactions, in about 60% of patients. All of the side effects were deemed mild or moderate, and all resolved themselves over the course of the study.

Fever, headache, and muscle ache? You’d trade a few days of those for a few days on a respirator, presumably, if you’re a reasonable person.

But in any case, they’re now in what’s known as a “phase 3” trial, which basically the final test, where they inject a bunch of people with the vaccine and send them out into the population, to see whether anybody is actually infected. That’s the key test really – does it work? If they were testing it on lab rats they could just deliberately expose the animals to the virus and see did the vaccine work, but medical ethics prevent that kind of carry on with people, fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your view.

In any case, if it does work, and let’s hope it does, it should be widely available early in the new year, if not before. Some people will refuse to take it, of course, for whatever reason, but assuming that enough people do take it, it should put an end to the disruption posed by this outbreak once and for all.

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