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Covid-19 Crisis Shot in the dark - why are leaders making baseless vaccine claims?

With the world anxiously awaiting a Covid-19 vaccine, politicians across the globe are insisting hope is around the corner, but many medical professionals say it could take up to five years

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A nurse with a vial of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19. Inset, Prof Adrian Hill, from Dublin, is leading the Oxford trials

A nurse with a vial of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19. Inset, Prof Adrian Hill, from Dublin, is leading the Oxford trials

REUTERS

A nurse with a vial of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19. Inset, Prof Adrian Hill, from Dublin, is leading the Oxford trials

As Covid-19 continues to dominate our lives, where do we stand now in the search for a vaccine?

Basically, in a state of agonising suspense.

More than 170 potential Covid-19 vaccines are being developed around the world, with some governments relying on their own state scientists and others placing their faith in private pharmaceutical companies.

At least a few of these research teams seem tantalisingly close to finding the silver bullet.

For now, however, the general pattern is that politicians keep claiming a vaccine is just around the corner, while medical experts say it isn't that simple.

Is this confusion happening in Ireland too?

Yes. Last Monday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar expressed great optimism that a vaccine will be available by next June at the latest.

"There's hope on the horizon," he said. "A lot of progress is being made. I think there's growing confidence that in the first half of the new year, we'll be in a position to vaccinate older people, those most at risk and healthcare workers."

On Tuesday, however, senior sources in the Department of Health were quoted as saying they didn't share Varadkar's confidence.

"We don't know when we'll have a vaccine," said one. "We're only setting up a committee to decide on how we'd roll out any vaccine programme. Hopefully, he knows something we don't."

What about the Oxford University trials that got people so excited in July?

They're still coming along, just not as quickly as everyone would like.

Based on injecting a weakened common cold virus that affects chimpanzees but can't harm humans, the Oxford vaccine caused a stir two months ago when tests showed 100pc of volunteers developing antibodies and T-cells that provided immunity against Covid-19.

Since then, researchers have been trying to replicate these results, with more trials in the US, Brazil and South Africa.

On September 8, the process was paused, reportedly because one participant had a worrying side-effect. Following a safety review, however, the tests resumed last Saturday.

Although the Oxford vaccine still looks like one of our best hopes, an early prediction by project leader Professor Adrian Hill, who's from Dublin, that it might be ready "by September or October" now looks too optimistic.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted last week that "early 2021" is a more realistic target.

Don't the Russians claim to have a Covid- 19 vaccine already?

Yes, but many non-Russian scientists think it sounds too good to be true.

On August 11, President Putin announced that his country's Gamaleya Research Institute (GRI) had registered a coronavirus vaccine called Sputnik V. He claimed he knew it worked because one of his daughters had received a shot during the process.

Putin now plans to produce 30 million doses of Sputnik V in Russia this autumn and says he could send around 170 million doses abroad too.

However, according to an open letter that has been signed by 38 university scientists from Italy, France, Germany, Japan and the US, the GRI's published evidence shows suspiciously repetitive results for different groups of patients.

"The data looks like it's been Photoshopped," said Andrea Cossarizza, a professor of pathology and immunology at the University of Modena.

"It's too similar and too unlikely from a stat- istical point of view."

Why is this issue also starting to affect the US presidential election?

Donald Trump clearly believes that finding a Covid-19 vaccine quickly could help him to win on Nov- ember 3.

"We're very close, could be three weeks, could be four weeks," he told a town hall meeting on Tuesday, the latest in a string of hints and promises.

This has been contradicted by some of Trump's own health officials such as Dr Robert Redfield, director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, who told a US Senate panel on Wednesday there will be no vaccine until "the second or third quarter of 2021". Trump responded by saying Dr Redfield "must be confused".

Trump has already spent more than $10bn (€8.5bn) on Operation Warp Speed, a collaboration between his government and leading pharmaceutical companies to speed up the vaccine development process.

However, a recent poll found 52pc of Americans don't trust his claims and would refuse to take a government-approved vaccine.

Assuming we do eventually find an effective Covid-19 vaccine, how soon can it be distributed to everyone who needs it?

About four or five years, according to the CEO of the world's biggest vaccine manufacturer.

Adar Poonawalla of the Serum Institute of India warned this week that pharmaceutical companies simply don't have the production capacity to do it any sooner.

But shouldn't Ireland be near the top of the queue?

Yes, since we would almost certainly form a partnership with our EU partners to buy the vaccine in bulk.

Last month, a poll found that 67pc of Irish people say they would be willing to take it. That's not a bad start, but the Government must be careful to avoid a repeat of the HPV vaccine controversy.

Finally, aren't we entitled to at least some hope that a Covid-19 vaccine will eventually end this nightmare for good?

With so many different reports from different sources, it all depends on whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty.

In the past 48 hours alone, China has ann-ounced it could have a vaccine by November, while Irishman Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation has said there's no guarantee we'll ever find one.

The overall situation was summed up well last week by professor of vaccinology Sarah Gilbert, who is working on Oxford University's trials.

"I know people are impatient," she said. "But it's not going to be like it's the movies where there's some kind of breakthrough and then suddenly the entire world is protected."

Herald