The Covid-19 pandemic caught the world unawares. The speed with which the pandemic virus spread was astounding.
The world's health system proved inadequate to meet the challenge thrown by the lethal virus.
The seeming helplessness of modern medical science to combat this new health menace supplied fresh arsenal to the sceptics who do not have much faith in science, especially, medical science.
Indeed, the pandemic has put medical science to the test. Hardly a year has gone by since the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak was reported from Wuhan, China when the entire world became impatient to get a quick answer to the health threat posed by the 'until now invincible' virus.
No vaccine against an epidemic of such proportions was ever developed within such a short time. But the scientific community took the challenge to develop a vaccine within the shortest possible time. And it appears, they have succeeded. The rather small biotechnology venture, BioNTech, of Germany and the US drug-making giant, Pfizer, are learnt to have together developed a vaccine against the Covid-19, which, they claim, has proved to be successful in 90 per cent of the cases. That means for every 100 volunteers injected with the vaccine created by the two companies, 90 people have been able to beat the virus. The volunteers took two doses of the Covid-19 jab, and one week after the second dose, that is, four weeks after the initial dose, the injected volunteers remained protected from infection.
It was the third phase of the trial which was carried out on some 44,000 individuals of different ethic and age groups in six countries.
The producing company's claim that the vaccine has 90 per cent efficacy is a big statement. In fact, scientists working worldwide to develop a vaccine against Covid-19 would be more than happy with a vaccine of 75 per cent efficiency, or even lower.
As Anthony Fauci, former member of the Corona Virus Task Force of the White House under President Trump and an immune-biologist of world repute, has said, even one with 50 per cent, even 40 per cent, efficacy is fairly within the admissible limit as a good vaccine. From that perspective, what the Pfizer-BioNTech duo has on offer is something to write home about. And the reported success of this group would, hopefully, be a shot in the arm for other research groups trying to develop their vaccines using the same technology, the so-called messenger RNA, or mRNA molecules.
Traditional vaccines are a part of a dead pathogen or a weakened version of the disease-producing virus injected into an uninfected person's body. The body's immune system then learns to fight the actual virus when it comes. The mRNA, technology, on the other hand, supplies body cells with the genetic codes (of the virus) so they can generate the proteins called 'antigens' of the Covid-19, the so familiar 'spike proteins' themselves. The human body then develops antibodies in response to those 'spike proteins'. So when the actual virus attacks the body cells they immediately recognise them and trigger the necessary immune response to vanquish the invading virus.
It is quite a new approach to make vaccines. If the vaccine being developed by Pfizer-BioNTech or other research teams such as under Moderna finally pass the clinical trial and duly peer-reviewed and get published in the medical journals of repute, then it will be a big step forward in humanity's fight against such lethal pandemics. Another positive aspect of this approach to produce vaccines is that unlike traditional vaccines that take a long time to develop and optimise, the mRNA technique enables drug-makers to overcome the time barrier.
However, the problem is that this kind of vaccines require a very low temperature (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit) to store (in deep freeze). So, these vaccines pose a huge logistical challenge so far as their preservation and distribution to the areas where needed are concerned. The vaccine costs close to US$20 per dose. Rich nations including the USA and UK have ordered in advance hundreds of millions of doses of this vaccine. They can afford the high cost to procure enough quantities of the vaccine for their populations. What about countries like Bangladesh and many other developing and least developed nations who may not afford to inoculate their populations with such a costly vaccine?
The vaccine in question, however, is yet to prove itself foolproof. There are also questions of safety. How long can it protect the inoculated people against the virus? Is it equally effective for people of all age groups? These and many more questions are waiting to be answered.
However, such questions would arise for any new drug or vaccine so created. And all the drugs or vaccines we are already so used to and familiar with had to pass these tests and the ultimate of the tests, the test of time.
The good news is a number of other research groups have also made strides toward developing similar and other types of vaccine. Around 170 vaccines of both new and traditional varieties are undergoing their different stages of trials. The more such vaccines are in the market, the better. That will help bring down the prices of the vaccines on the one hand and prove their comparative efficacies on the other.
The news of the Pfizer-BioNTech success is doubtless a cause for optimism for public health and the economy worldwide. But the vaccines once produced must be within the reach of all the peoples everywhere. Otherwise all the hard work and genius of the researchers behind the vaccines lose meaning. For scientific invention was never made to serve the privileged few.