By turning the usual marathon of vaccine development into a sprint to immunise against COVID-19 is there a risk of compromising the principle of ‘first do no harm’?
UK ministers have announced emergency powers to shortcut the normal regulatory process for vaccines. In the USA, the President is pressuring the FDA in the hope of a vaccine before the election.
The fastest vaccine ever produced was for mumps and took four years. Of course, the science has improved since then and never has there been such financial backing from governments to support a vaccine’s development. A recent analysis of evidence by McKinsey predicts that COVID-19 vaccines are likely to become available by the first quarter of 2021, possibly even last quarter 2020. It would normally take 10-15 years to reach this stage.
One of the significant risks of rapid development is the potential for antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE), a type of immune reaction where vaccination makes subsequent exposure to the virus more dangerous. Just one serious adverse incident per thousand people equates to hundreds of thousands when billions will have to be vaccinated.
Every world economy is desperate for a solution but measuring the balance of risk will be crucial.