OPINION | Pandemic has unfolded like a movie where the bad guy wins – but we are rewriting the end

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  • More than 3.9 billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been administered across 180 countries worldwide.
  • Mounting evidence suggests that the vaccines are saving lives, yet vaccine hesitancy remains a threat.
  • Professor Scriba has more than 15 years of experience in infectious diseases and the human immune system.

Enjoy a good movie? It’s the year 2020. People around the world are highly connected; global trade, business, travel, and tourism are bustling.

New partnerships are established at business meetings, conferences and late-night dinners; religious events are attended by thousands, some traveling for days to join in fellowship; voices of playful children disclose the location of every school; night clubs are packed with rhythmic waves of steaming bodies; cheers of jubilation penetrate from crowded sports stadia and bars; weekend family get-togethers bring joy and occasional altercations.

This is life on planet earth.

Meanwhile, far away in China, a dozen or so people are admitted to hospital with deadly, ground-glass pneumonia, and a few succumb to the disease. Experts mention some type of severe acute respiratory disease. This is not unusual – “it happens all the time”; “we know that influenza viruses can cause pneumonia”.

But, within days, pneumonia cases are reported in other countries, many more countries. Wait, we may have an international event on our hands. An über-infectious virus, emerging from Asia, spreading rapidly to many parts of the world. 

And it’s airborne! 

'Some lose many loved ones'

Schools close, stay-at-home orders are issued, curfews are implemented. We’ve all seen the movie. Oh, and in South Africa, alcohol sales are banned. Jobs are at stake.

Except, this time, it keeps spreading. Within 12 months the newly named SARS-CoV-2 virus has killed more than two million people and infected many, many more.

By July 2021, more than 4 million have perished. Everyone has a family member, neighbour, or co-worker who was killed by Covid-19. Some lose many loved ones.

Effective treatments for those with the disease are scarce and there is poor consensus among doctors about the treatment options. Hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed, health systems are stretched.

Leaders scramble to stay on top of the chaos, to contain the spread of the virus, to ensure that oxygen supply is maintained and that tests for the virus are available.

Things are literally chaotic.

Communication and messaging are inconsistent, muddy, and sometimes even dangerous. Articles, videos, and voice-notes, spread on Facebook, are the new guiding sources of information for many. “If aunty Patty sent this it must be true.”

New “experts” emerge. Distrust in authorities and international agencies responsible for guidance, guidelines, and policies become rife. 

Tackling Covid vaccine development 

Despite all this, decades of scientific endeavour and medical innovation have serendipitously created the perfect fertile ground for an unprecedented scientific breakthrough.

Within weeks of the first ground-glass pneumonia cases in China, the genetic sequence for SARS-CoV-2 is available to anyone who wants access to it.

Within months, thousands of viruses have their genetic sequence read. Novel vaccine development technologies, some of them spectacularly exciting, which had been percolating in laboratories around the globe, have an immediate application.

Luckily, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not particularly complex and prior knowledge of coronavirus spike as a target for the immune response facilitates instant vaccine design.

Biotech, universities, NGOs, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, philanthropic organisations, regulatory agencies, and others create the largest network to date to tackle vaccine development for Covid-19, at warp-speed.

Fiscal risk management is side-stepped, stages of development that typically run in series, happen in parallel. Unprecedented collaboration, sharing, investment, and cutting of red tape lead to surprising efficiency and progress.

Within months, phase 1 and 2 trials are completed and phase 3 trials are underway. Because Covid-19 disease happens within days to weeks of infection, efficacy signals can be compared in those who received vaccine versus those who received placebo within one to two months, generating conclusive evidence of excellent vaccine efficacy.

We have a solution – a way to prevent this scary, highly transmissible airborne virus from killing people.

It is absolutely amazing news! 

Covid-19 vaccination saving lives

Unbelievable, for some, but it is true. Before the end of 2020, we had efficacy estimates for multiple vaccines against Covid-19. Today more than 3.9 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered and every day additional evidence of the remarkable efficacy of the vaccines is released.

In the adventure/thriller playing out before our eyes, this is the most heart-warming ending. It is indisputable that Covid-19 vaccination is saving thousands of lives and sparing millions the debilitating and long-term effects of long Covid.

Hundreds of scientific papers show with consistency that widespread vaccination protects against Covid-19 with acceptable and minimal safety concerns.

The science is clear – vaccination is a no-brainer.

If these scientific papers are not accessible, a stark and sobering illustration of this comes from a simple comparison of case fatality rates between rich countries with high vaccination rates like Israel, the UK, and the US, and poor countries with less than 5% of their population vaccinated. The real threats are insufficient vaccine supply and hesitancy to be vaccinated. 

Thomas Scriba is a Professor in Immunology at the University of Cape Town. He reads the scientific literature and avoids Facebook. He is vaccinated against Covid-19 and occasionally enjoys a good movie. He declares that he has no commercial or financial conflicts relevant to vaccine development or the pharmaceutical industry.

READ | Unvaccinated individuals give Covid-19 virus fertile breeding ground for new variants

READ | Covid vaccines were developed quickly: How do we know they won't cause any long-term health effects

READ | Like a 'blanket of fatigue': Inside Groote Schuur’s long Covid clinic

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