COVID Vaccine gives us all cause for hope

Just as we had begun to face the misery of a second national lockdown, the news we had all been waiting for finally arrived on November 9 when scientists at Pfizer/BioNTech announced the successful development of a vaccine that promises to be 90% effective against COVID-19. The impact on public and business morale – as evidenced by the upsurge in Stock Market prices around the world – has been instantaneous.

More encouraging still, only days later our own scientists at University of Oxford and AstraZeneca revealed a second, potentially cheaper option as being almost ready and, as I write, two more alternative drugs have just been announced by Belgian company Janssen and Moderna in the US (the latter apparently 95% effective).

Clinical trials are now in full swing to have the drugs approved and available in enough quantities for widespread use throughout the population. Based on what we know, it seems reasonable to assume that the world’s scientists have risen to the challenge and got the virus on the ropes in record time. Amidst all the disruption and tragedy, suddenly life doesn’t seem so bad.

However, perhaps it is a little premature (insensitive?) to start claiming victory over this dreadful disease. After all, people around the world are still becoming infected in record numbers, many hospital wards and ICUs are full and people are still dying every day.

Experts from the Institution of Chemical Engineers’ COVID Response Team have called on the Government and public health organisations to focus on the complex engineering required behind the scenes to be able to deliver the number of courses of the vaccine required. The task of scaling up production to meet demand will require the skills of chemicals engineers, biochemical engineers and process engineers. To store and distribute the drugs safely – remember, the Pfizer version needs to be kept below -70C – will require scientists, clinicians, logistics experts and project managers to be called into action. GPs, nurses and possibly chemists will be needed to administer the vaccine. It will be a huge task.

The UK Finance Ministry’s recent moves to stimulate investment in UK manufacturing through extending tax breaks and capital allowances are therefore timely. Manufacturing outputs in the UK were lower than expected in September so we need a wider recovery to get the job done. In the meantime, let us hope we will have special cause to celebrate Christmas this year.