Covid-19 remains a threat but universities are at the forefront of fighting back.
When lockdowns began being implemented around the world four months ago, there was a cautious optimism that the short-term inconvenience was necessary but would allow us all to emerge on the other side in a significantly better place to beat the pandemic.
Some countries have managed to pull this off. New Zealand has effectively eradicated the virus on its shores (though some travellers have brought it with them).
Others are, to put it mildly, stumbling along. England (specifically England, not the UK) has managed to fumble its way through the crisis but took no measures to protect its elderly population in care homes, the prime minister’s own adviser broke the law to travel across the country during lockdown and England is now faced with individual cities being forced into lockdowns. The parliament’s financial watchdog concluded that there was an “astonishing” failure by the government to plan for the economic impact to the possibility of a flu-like pandemic. You could argue nobody expected one, but it has only been 10 years since the swine flu pandemic, when the same party was in power (albeit not the same government).
Some have handled it outright catastrophically. Cases are surging in 40 US states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico as of July 23, according to an analysis by the New York Times. Overall, the US has nearly 4 million cases – more than 26% of the world’s confirmed infections – and is responsible for almost 23% of global deaths (143,190 out of 623,658 casualties), according to figures collated by Johns Hopkins University by July 23.
If we were all hoping in March to be cautiously emerging from lockdowns everywhere by now, as a species we have utterly failed. The reason why is entirely political, motivated by a populist idea that shops and restaurants need to reopen to save “the economy” (the long-term effect, of course, will be an economy weakened beyond anything that enforced restrictions would have caused).
But while we will certainly need politicians to ensure vaccines are deployed fairly and made mandatory for anyone bar those with medical restrictions, politicians were never going to be the ones to ultimately save us. The people who will save us are the scientists.
The World Health Organisation is currently tracking the development of 166 potential vaccines, including 24 already in clinical trials – some being developed by spinouts such as Moderna (Harvard University), CureVac (Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen) and Biontech (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz).
The fastest vaccine ever developed in human history so far was the one for mumps and that took four years, but there is reason to be optimistic about a quicker vaccine for Covid-19. For one, the urgency of the situation has meant that government, institutional and private investors have been throwing billions of dollars at the research.
And on July 20, University of Oxford and pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca revealed the results of their phase 1/2 trial for a vaccine candidate with the catchy name of ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 in medical journal The Lancet. The research group’s Prof Andrew Pollard told the BBC the results were “extremely promising”, though the long-term viability of the vaccine remains to be determined. The study involved 1,077 participants, 90% of which were shown to develop antibodies and T-cells that can fight off the virus. The UK government immediately proceeded to pre-order 100 million doses of the final product.
For now, we will continue to all be stuck in limbo: even if Oxford’s, or any of the other vaccines, pass all regulatory hurdles by the end of the year, it will be until mid-2021 for doses to become widely available. If politicians, and citizens, fail to take the situation seriously for that long, it could mean tens of thousands of additional deaths.
But if you look carefully, you can see light at the end of this seemingly never-ending tunnel, as faint as it might be. And while Oxford is conducting its research with a corporate partner, the fact that there are multiple spinouts working on a vaccine too means there is a decent chance that a spinout will save humanity – be honest, how many of you really had that in their sights when becoming a tech transfer professional?