Matt Ridley

Temper your excitement about the Covid vaccine

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Ever since Giacomo Pylarini, a physician working in the Ottoman Empire, sent a report to the Royal Society in 1701 that Turkish women believed pus from a smallpox survivor could induce immunity in a healthy person – and was dismissed as a dangerous quack – inoculation has been as much an art as a science. But it has proven to be the greatest life-saver of all time, eliminating smallpox and suppressing many other diseases. In Pylarini’s prescient words, it is ‘an operation invented not by persons conversant in philosophy or skilled in physic, but by a vulgar, illiterate people; an operation in the highest degree beneficial to the human race.’

It looks like a vaccine is probably going to work against Covid. That was never guaranteed: it’s been decades since scientists started seeking a vaccine for malaria and HIV, with no luck so far, and flu vaccines only last for a limited time before the virus mutates. But the announcement last week that the German firm BioNTech’s vaccine, developed in partnership with Pfizer, seems to prevent Covid infection is encouraging news. Kudos to Kate Bingham for spotting it early.

Temper your excitement though. The sample size is small, the safety of the vaccine not yet proven, its effectiveness in the elderly uncertain, the duration of immunity unknown and it needs to be stored at -70C, which requires some pretty James Bond style logistics. Then there’s the challenge of immunising 67 million people in a short space of time.

The reason the vaccine prefers such a cold temperature is that it’s made of a fatty bubble containing messenger RNA, an unstable compound, never before used to make a vaccine. This is a critter whose purpose was first spotted, legend has it, at a seminar on Good Friday in 1961.

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Written by
Matt Ridley
Matt Ridley is the author of How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom (2020), and co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 (2021)

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