The coming of the COVID-19 vaccines and what they mean


Arthur C. Clarke, the great science-fiction writer and futurist, put it well when he said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Indeed, the seemingly magical nature of these past few days, with the appearance of not one but two possible coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines on the horizon, is the world’s first real cause for hope that this dreaded pestilence is at last on its way out. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of America’s efforts to combat the pandemic, triumphantly noted: “The vaccine is really the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The first glad tidings came with the announcement that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is fully 90 percent effective in phase three advanced trials — a far higher percentage of success than anyone had dared hoped for. It relies on a new technique based on messenger RNA (mRNA), a biotech innovation that up until now had inspired great hopes (and a lot of investor interest) but far fewer practical results.

Basically, the coronavirus ensues when infected DNA — the building block of all life — sends a series of nefarious signals to individual human cells that leads to the illness. To combat the disease, the Pfizer vaccine sends mRNA to read these negative signals and instead retransmits positive signals to the cells, causing them to build up proteins found on the surface of the virus, stimulating the body’s immune system and combating the disease. The new technique, RNA therapeutics, is not intrusive, leaving DNA intact, merely changing the message the body receives.

While this amounts to a major breakthrough, there are some problems with the Pfizer vaccine, relating mainly to logistics. It must be shipped and stored at a frigid -70 degrees Celsius and can only be used at room temperature for up to five days. Given the huge distribution challenges ahead, this is far from ideal, even if it amounts to the greatest of news.

But, just days later, even better tidings were in store. The developers of the rival Moderna vaccine, which uses the same revolutionary RNA messenger technique, announced that it had an even better 95 percent efficacy rate in phase three trials, prompting hopes that several different vaccine sources could together rid us of this pestilential disease. The phase three results of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, which uses a different technique, are expected in the coming weeks.

The Moderna vaccine has been proven to protect people over 65, those most likely to contract the disease, and to stop severe outbreaks of the illness. Even better, it is far easier to transport and store than Pfizer’s, as it is stable at normal refrigerator temperatures of 2-8 C for up to 30 days, and can be stored for months at -20 C. Moderna is confident it can manufacture 1 billon doses in 2021 (two are needed by each person), though 770 million have already been allocated for use in the US, Moderna’s home country. Large-scale Moderna production is not expected…

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