Better safe than sorry

| Updated on September 15, 2020

A Covid vaccine cannot be hurried. Science calls for patience

The pausing and restarting of the AstraZeneca-Oxford Covid-19 vaccine trial is a reality check that science cannot be hurried. That the testing was stopped because a single trial participant took ill shows the rigorousness of the vaccine-development process and the commendable seriousness with which the developers have taken the event. Though the pausing caused some alarm and despondency, it is a reiteration that the development of the vaccine is on the lines it should be. It emphasises the importance of the stage-by-stage safety tests involved in vaccine development, and red-flags their possible circumventing by the Russian and Chinese candidates. By all accounts, such stoppages are quite normal in the development of any vaccine. The note last week from a set of pharma companies that they won’t be hurried makes sense.

‘Hurry’ is indeed the issue, here. The Covid pandemic has had such a sweeping impact that there is a desperation for a vaccine. With the death toll on the rise, and economies — rich, middle-income and poor — roiled, governments are desperate for a preventive medicine. In the absence of a sure cure, governments are relying on a vaccine so that infections will drop, which will embolden people to head to work without fear, and economies will recover. For them, it is literally a race to find an antidote, and push they will for that. As US President Donald Trump did, when he demanded a vaccine by November, essentially as a booster dose for his presidential campaign. While there is per se nothing wrong in accelerating the development of a vaccine, due processes cannot be ignored in the desperation for an antidote. Just because Phase 1 and 2 of the Covid vaccine were done quickly and were successful, too, can be no guarantee for a repeat in the more crucial third stage, which involves a far larger number of participants. In fact, many experts even put a question mark on the efficacy of the first set of vaccines when they do emerge.

While the pausing of trials was hopefully only a setback, the reality is that even the most optimistic do not expect a vaccine for mass use before early 2021. That is still five-six months away. Till then, instead of waiting for a vaccine, perhaps, governments should push people to follow practices that are well-recognised as slowing the Covid infection — social distancing, wearing masks, maintaining good hygiene. Yes, one objective of governments, to get people back to pre-Covid normalcy, will not be achieved, but the other — a more crucial one, really — of saving lives will be. Already, governments must be getting some comfort from the fact that even as the infection rate is rising so is the recovery rate. ‘Better safe than sorry’ is the line governments must take and allow science and its practitioners the time and freedom to develop an efficacious vaccine.

Published on September 15, 2020

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