Monday, 23 Nov 2020

Hopes for end to masks as British coronavirus vaccine could be rolled out before Christmas

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It means that with up to six vaccines likely to be in play by 2021, the world could return to normal next year, with regular hand-washing the only long-term “restriction” from the Covid era. Masks are also likely to become a thing of the past outside clinical settings and social distancing could be ditched. Results from the Pfizer vaccine trials last week, suggesting it is 90 per cent effective, sent hopes soaring that an end to the virus is in sight.

There are several other trials under way in the UK, with the Oxford vaccine one of the frontrunners.

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, confirmed that initial results looked promising. 

“If things go according to plan it could be rolled out by Christmas,” said Dr Head, whose university has helped with the research.

The Oxford vaccine has the advantage of being cheaper and easier to store. It uses a weakened version of a common cold virus that has been genetically altered, allowing the body to recognise and deal with coronavirus.

The Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be kept at -70C, is an RNA messenger vaccine. It enters cells and tells them to create antigens to Covid.

Prof Head said: “With the Pfizer vaccine, while we need to see more safety data, it does look very exciting and has given us real hope.

“Southampton colleagues leading the trial are also hoping to get results from the Oxford vaccine soon. This works in a different way and gives us good reason to be optimistic.

“We need many vaccines because we need supplies for the whole world.

“We should hear from the Oxford group within weeks. If it is good news we could have a rollout before Christmas or in the New Year.”

The hope is these would stop the transmission of the virus. Prof Head said: “If they do that, we should be able to return to normal societal existence within the next six to nine months. 

“We should have the vulnerable population vaccinated over winter so that autumn 2021 will look more like autumn 2019.

“We may have a few measures in place, such as needing a vaccine certificate when travelling abroad, but day-to-day living should be beyond the point of needing lockdowns.” 

Fewer cases means that test-and-trace should function more effectively and hospitals will be better at treating patients.

Prof Head said: “We may not be wearing masks in the second half of 2021, except possibly in hospitals or care homes, and won’t need social distancing.”

He added: “I hope that one thing we take beyond this pandemic is washing our hands more frequently, as this can help protect us against infections.”

Dr Gillies O’Bryan-Tear, a vaccine expert and Chair of the Policy and Communications Committee at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, said he believed the Pfizer results are a “watershed moment” because they show that a coronavirus could be beaten.

Efforts to beat SARs and MERs have so far ended in failure.

He said: “That is why this is big news, because we now know we can do it.”

He confirmed that we will know whether the Oxford vaccine will be effective within weeks. 

He added: “This means that by the middle of next year we should have three, four or even half a dozen vaccines that have been shown to be effective to varying levels.

“To implement a vaccine program will hopefully not be too huge a task because governments have been very generous in contributing towards manufacturing, which means vaccines will be brought out at scale.

“We will start this work by the beginning of 2021 and by the end of next year we will have done a decent proportion of the at-risk population and should be going back to normal.”

The first step, said Dr O’Bryan-Tear, is to ensure the vulnerable are vaccinated, adding: “Once high-risk groups begin to get vaccinated we need to put a case for a relaxation of lockdown measures. I think we could be back to normal by the end of 2021.”

Last week Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, said that the breakthrough meant this wave of infection could be the last that Britain endures.

Britain has bought 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in advance, enough for 20 million people. It has also secured 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine.

Sources at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy say that work continues to ensure “the UK is at the front of the queue” when a vaccine does become available.

Meanwhile, baricitinib – used to treat rheumatoid arthritis – has reduced Covid deaths in elderly Italian and Spanish patients by more than 70 per cent.

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