Few relish a jab in the arm with a needle. If the syringe prevented Covid-19, then many might think it a pain worth suffering — but by no means all. Tens of thousands of anti-lockdown protesters gathered in Berlin over the weekend, some to voice their discontent at the possibility of being coerced by the state into getting vaccinated. The situation is far from unique to Germany. In Italy, where the broader anti-vaccination movement enjoys widespread support, both main anti-establishment parties campaigned last year against compulsory routine vaccinations for children. In the US, a fifth of people say they would never submit to inoculation against coronavirus; another third remain unsure. A recent online survey of UK residents showed a quarter would decline a vaccine if the government made it “available tomorrow”.
Only Russia has committed to launch a mass inoculation programme before the end of 2020 — in October — regardless of whether a vaccine candidate has been properly tested. Globally 165 vaccines are in testing, according to the World Health Organization, though securing approval from medical authorities in the US and Europe for any of them will take many months. Anthony Fauci, top adviser in the White House’s coronavirus task force, is nevertheless “cautiously optimistic” that a vaccine will be available by the turn of the year.
Rapid progress is not in itself a cause for concern; indeed, it ought to be cheered in light of the economic and social costs of the pandemic. There are, however, examples where governments have prioritised speed over efficacy in the treatment of disease. They include a mass swine flu vaccination in 1976 that led to a rare neurological condition, Guillain-Barré syndrome, in some recipients — though the swine flu strain proved less lethal than first thought. Two attempts to cure polio, in the 1930s and 1950s, produced pernicious side effects. While many “anti-vaxxers” rely more on conspiracy than fact, some have legitimate concerns based on past mis-steps. The temptation to cut corners this time around must be resisted.
Nor is inoculation necessarily a silver bullet; experts view temporary immunity or mitigation against the worst effects of Covid-19 as more realistic aims than eradication. Measures to minimise the probability of infection, such as handwashing and mask wearing, or to lessen the likelihood of death or lasting damage to patients’ health remain vital. Yet it is right that the thrust of the efforts of drug companies and governments is on finding a vaccine. We know that Covid-19 is exceptionally contagious; that raises the bar for herd immunity, with the proportion of the population that needs antibodies estimated at between 60 per cent and 80 per cent. Inoculation is our best shot at control.
Mass vaccination has improved humanity’s lot immensely. It has rid large parts of the world of diseases such as smallpox, measles, tuberculosis and polio, saving the lives of millions. If we are lucky enough to find a candidate, with tolerable side effects, that can meet the vigorous standards set by bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration or its equivalents in Europe — and assuming sufficient doses can be made available — public health authorities should target the maximum possible take-up. To limit the number of naysayers, health officials need to start planning information campaigns to dispel the myths and fake news, and transparency will be needed from drug companies. The message ought to be that, while medical treatment is neither entirely risk-free, nor pleasant, a needle-prick in the arm would be a small price to pay against the cost of Covid-19.
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