So far, so good: the Oxford university trials on a potential vaccine for Covid-19 is reported to be going well. It has been tested on more than a thousand people, and it looks to be safe. There is another, more important question, however, and one where an answer might take a frustratingly long time. Does it work?
It is too early to say. Right now, not enough of the people vaccinated have been exposed to the virus for any reliable results. Now the team are planning to move it into hospitals where the chances of exposure are significantly higher. The chances are that will give them more of an idea. But hold on. That's crazy. In fact, what we need is a 'challenge vaccine'.
In the United States, and elsewhere, there is already a campaign underway to change the rules on vaccine development. Instead of trialling a potential candidate on volunteers, and then waiting for them to be exposed naturally to a disease, you would vaccinate volunteers, then deliberately expose them to the infection to see what happened.
Fairly obviously, that would dramatically accelerate development. Vaccine researchers could come up with a candidate and find out within weeks whether it was both safe and effective. Perhaps more importantly, they could start fiddling around with dosages, and variants, until an effective vaccine was perfected. Instead, they are having to wait weeks, or perhaps months, for exposure to happen naturally. Even worse, with society in lockdown, and the transmission rate (thankfully) sinking, testing is going to keep taking longer and longer. The virus is not especially prevalent anymore, and the chances of infection are low. It could take forever.
There wouldn’t be any shortage of volunteers. On the 1 Daysooner.org website more than 20,000 people have signed up to be used as guinea pigs from over a hundred countries. Of course, there are ethical issues to consider, and taking part isn't without risk. That said, if the trials are on young, healthy volunteers, and it is done in a controlled environment with appropriate supervision, such risks are low. Campaigners estimate the risk of a fatality might be as low as one in three thousand. In truth, we don't mind sending volunteers off to fight wars for us, and that is a lot more risky. So why should we be so reluctant to let people volunteer to fight an epidemic for us?
The only real way out of this mess is a vaccine. If we could shave even a month off development times we would save thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of lives and billions of lost output (and then we’d save a heck of a lot more lives from reduced poverty and isolation). The prize is a big one. It is surely worth taking some chances to get there. All it takes is for one major country, and preferably one with a highly developed pharmaceutical industry, and world-leading research universities, to break ranks and allow challenge vaccines. The UK? Why not? This country has a great history of medical innovation. We should repeat that by being the first country to break the taboos on vaccine development, and get one as fast as possible.