Peter Donnelly, Editor
In a world of misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination campaigns have found conducive conditions on the worldwide web to spread their extremely harmful messages, which seek to prevent the administration of a vaccine designed to combat a deadly adversary which has taken the lives of over two million people around the globe.
Vaccination sceptics date back to the time of Edward Jenner who pioneered smallpox vaccination in the 18th century. In the 1990s the reported measles, mumps rubella (MMR) vaccine link with autism caused anxiety among parents. Research subsequently confirmed that no such link existed. The anti-vaccination movement (aka Anti-Vaxers) can now avail of the fertile conditions of social media to spread their misinformation and conspiracy theories which, like the virus itself, has thrived during the current, global Covid-19 pandemic.
Information provided to the public during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic has unfortunately been characterised by widespread confusion. Initially the World Health Organisation and the Centres for Disease Control advised that there was no benefit from wearing face masks in public; yet now this is the routine of everyday life. Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, discussed the benefits of Herd Immunity.
Despite the importance of contact tracing in controlling the virus and reducing the R-number in the UK, the systems in place did not appear to be very effective. New types of vaccines were developed at break neck speeds. The public were understandably concerned about the safety and possible side effects of such vaccines. To date the UK has had access to the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 and the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines.
The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 is an mRNA vaccine; a new type of vaccine. It instructs the cells in the body to produce the “spike protein” found on the surface of the corona virus which causes Covid-19. The body will then mount an immune response producing antibodies to the spike protein resulting in protection against the coronavirus’ deadly effects. The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is composed of a weakened form of a modified common cold virus which stimulates the production of antibodies to Covid-19.
The UK will also have access to the Moderna vaccine, the Novavax vaccine, which is manufactured in the UK, and the Janssen vaccine produced by Johnson and Johnson in the near future. The UK Government have advised that the timing of the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine can be extended to 12 weeks from the previously recommended 21 days by the manufacturer. There is ongoing debate regarding this new regimen as this has not previously been studied by researches. Senior doctors in the BMJ have raised concerns. Who do we believe?
When prominent public figures, such as Sir Desmond Swayne endorse AntiVaxers this only adds to confusion amongst the public. In Norway, 29 elderly, frail people died shortly after receiving the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine resulting in advice to medical staff to individually assess such patients pre-vaccination. In Germany, New Scientist 29th January 2021, a committee has recommended withholding the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine in people over 65 years of age due to insufficient trial data concerning induced immunity in these individuals.
The Covid-19 pandemic, WHO Coronavirus Disease Dashboard, has resulted in 2,191,898 deaths worldwide. In the United States over 437,000 people have succumbed to the coronavirus since March 2020. On 27th January, the Prime Minister made the grim confirmation that the UK’s death toll had surpassed 100,000. Currently, at the time of writing, a combined total of 107,585 deaths have been reported in the UK and Ireland.
The vaccination programme for Covid-19 commenced in Northern Ireland, on the 8th December 2020. A phased plan for the vaccination programme is currently underway. The continuation of the vaccine programme was threatened by the latest controversy over the EU Commission’s decision to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol which would have introduced export controls on vaccines to Northern Ireland. The backlash was so great, from a cross-section of political opinion on both sides of the Irish Border and the UK, that the EU Commission desisted in unilaterally invoking Article 16, thus averting a potential ‘vaccine war.’
The UK’s new found independence from the EU which has seen the swift rollout of the vaccine to the majority over 80’s in the UK, on the cusp of February 2021. The UK is, so far, ahead of the 27 countries which make up the EU in the distribution of the vaccine. This has further boosted political capital in the direction of Brexit champions who see the UK’s efficient approval and subsequent delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine as attributable to the freedom from the EU bloc.
Further research and data is needed to determine the efficacy of these new vaccines. The Lancet reports that there are currently 200 Covid-19 vaccines under development worldwide. New variants of the Covid-19 virus and the probability of developing further mutations of the virus may cause additional difficulties in controlling the pandemic.
An international governmental and multi-disciplinary approach is fundamental in the combatting of false information which, like the pandemic itself, has thrived on platforms hosted by self-appointed ‘medical experts.’ The firm measures which have been adopted by government and industry professionals must continue to silence the conspiracy theorists, nay-sayers and malcontents who would seek to risk the publics’ health by stymieing optimal uptake of vaccination. Despite the concerns, ifs and buts, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as early studies are demostrating that vaccines are reducing the spread of the virus. The only way forward in this deadly adversary, which is having such devastating effects worldwide, is to proceed with vaccination.
Queen’s University is currently offering asymptomatic testing on campus. Click here to find out more.