Professor Lawrence Young, Professor of Molecular Oncology, is internationally-recognised for his work in viral infection. He shares his thoughts with us on the encouraging news about results from three Covid-19 vaccines.
Vaccines have been one of the biggest success stories of modern medicine. The World Health Organisation estimates that at least 3 million deaths per year are averted by vaccination. Many millions more lives are protected from the suffering and disability associated with diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, whooping cough, measles, and polio.
Vaccines reduce risks of getting a disease by working with your body’s natural defences to build protection. When you get vaccinated, your immune system responds and builds up a protective immune barrier that can often last for life.
It usually takes more than 10 years to develop a new vaccine and most vaccines in common use are made from weakened or chemically-inactivated forms of the virus that causes disease. All of this has been thrown out the window by the current coronavirus pandemic.
Vaccines that use completely novel technologies have been rapidly developed and tested in clinical trials – all in 10 months. The main aim of these trials is to ensure that the vaccine is safe and that it is able to stimulate the right type of immune response that will protect from disease. In recent weeks we have seen very encouraging results from three different vaccines that all appear to be very good at protecting individuals infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus from developing Covid-19.
Several challenges remain. We have to be absolutely sure that these vaccines are safe and effective before they can be used to vaccinate us all – this is the job of our regulatory authority, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. The vaccines have to be manufactured so that there is enough for the entire population and we need an efficient system to get us all vaccinated. Then there are some other issues. It is not yet clear whether these vaccines can block people from transmitting the virus, whether they will work equally well in higher-risk groups such as older adults and how long their protective effects will last. Nevertheless, we have achieved the important first step - having vaccines that can prevent Covid-19 and thereby stop people being hospitalised and dying.
The fact that we have a number of vaccines almost ready for use in such a short period of time is a massive achievement. It shows what can be done when scientists around the world focus their effort on a particular disease – an approach that we should adopt to combat other diseases as malaria, cancer and dementia.
This article was originally published in the University of Warwick's community newsletter, published every month or so to keep local residents up to date with what's going on at Warwick. If you would like to receive our newsletter by email, you can join the mailing list.