Our Christmas gift this year is just perhaps a miracle

CREDIT: AstraZeneca

It’s hard to think that this time last year practically no one had heard of the coronavirus that has come to dominate all our lives. Even harder to believe that we now have the first of several vaccines that have been developed and already people around the world are starting to be vaccinated.

We have all suffered, emotionally, economically, physically, and spiritually. It is true to say that the world has not seen anything quite like this before. I’ve heard people talk of a modern day plague and in some ways that’s not a bad description.

In the days of London’s bubonic plague it is estimated that around 500,000 people were infected and died in the capital alone. Of course at the time there was no treatment or preventative measures put in place because no one really understood that bacteria were to blame and were being transmitted by flea bites.

The infection was out of control and only really died out when there were less people around for the fleas to feed on.  Today we are rather more fortunate to live in enlightened times but a combination of fear and ignorance could be just as deadly as this virus we have all come to loath.

I certainly don’t believe in making vaccinations compulsory, that’s a very slippery road for all sorts of reasons. But I do have to challenge some of the rather things that appear and thanks to social media gain traction so quickly.

I’m not talking about alien powers seeking to microchip us, or some giant corporation seeking world domination, but there are some genuine questions that deserve answers and might be worrying some people.

Perhaps the most common one I hear is how on earth have we managed to come up with a vaccine so quickly? After all, we have had to understand the virus and then develop an effective vaccine, test it and then get regulatory approval all inside of a year.

We are continually told this process normally takes around ten years, and yes usually that’s true. So how has this been possible?

Well I know it is that time of year, but this is nothing short of a miracle. This time though it is well and truly thanks to thousands of people who have been working tirelessly all over the world.

For many people the world of the research scientist is probably best summed up by the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but it isn’t all supercomputers and sudden revelations. Instead it is a slow and rigorous methodical approach, one that has evolved and developed over literally hundreds of years.

At its heart is the academic journal, these really are the Holy Grail. Get your work reviewed by peers and deemed fit for publication and you are on the first rung of a long ladder that slowly charts your success and progression.

It often takes six months or longer to have something accepted; I know that because as a former CEO of the British Society for Immunology we published two leading academic journals and the scrutiny and review process was lengthy and would sometimes require a rewrite or some further work in order to meet the very high standard required.

This year something remarkable happened; laboratories and institutions all over the world published their work on-line immediately with virtually no access limitations.  Within a few weeks the virus was decoded and that data was made available worldwide.

The world’s scientific community was working as one. Long established fierce commercial rivalries were set aside as highly prized commercially valuable data was shared. The journals that were publishing had reviewers working around the clock and they removed their paywalls so that anyone could access the data that was starring to emerge.

All this allowed scientists to exploit the vulnerabilities that were being discovered with the virus. Co-operation on this level has never happened before.

But it’s not just the people in white coats. Across the globe ordinary people in their thousands volunteered to be human Guinee pigs, to help assess the effectiveness of the several vaccines under development whilst at the same time the large pharmaceutical companies started to mass produce vaccine in the hope that it would pass all the tests.

This alone was a huge financial gamble. Manufacturing started before the results were in so that if a green light was given there would be supplies ready and waiting, again this is not the usual way of doing things.

And so far as the regulatory authorities go, they have also had access in real time to everything as it has been happening which is why approval has been given so promptly. So there have been no short-cuts, just a truly worldwide collaboration.

So does it work? Ideally we want the vaccine to do two things; we want it to protect us from getting ill and we want it to stop the virus spreading.  We absolutely know that the vaccine that has just got approval, and also one under development in Oxford do provide this protection.

They work by stimulating our own immune system to produce antibodies so we are prepared if we come into contact with the virus. That means hardly anyone will end up in hospital and very few will succumb, so that alone is a major winner because when our health care systems are at breaking point our worlds change for the worse.

The other goal which is to limit the spread is something that will take a bit longer to really quantify, and we are pretty sure that’s going to happen but, and it is a big but, all of us must stick to the rules around closed-in spaces, close contact with one another, and crowds.

Washing our hands and keep a face covering on for the time being really is so important whilst we start the massive task of vaccinating everyone. Spain plans to start that in the New Year and will follow internationally agreed plans to target the most vulnerable first.

No one will be forced into taking the vaccine; of course it is personal decision. I will be getting vaccinated and have no worries whatsoever and I urge all of you to accept the vaccine when it is offered.

The more of us that are vaccinated the less chance the virus has of spreading. Personally, I believe we owe it to those who have suffered so badly to make sure this virus well and truly never sees the light of day again.

We are not out of the woods yet, but we can at last now see our way out. It’s probably going to take a good six months before the world can start to relax, but this is a Christmas present for all of us. I’m a scientist but to be quite honest with you I’m very happy to call this is a miracle.

A very Happy Christmas to you all.

Dr Marcus Stephan

My views are entirely personal and do not reflect the view or position of any organisation. You should always consult your own medical practitioner regarding any concerns that you may have.

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