The miracle that promises a return to normal

Scientific revolution: this will be the first ever Messenger RNA vaccine used on humans.

Will life ever return to normal? After a breakthrough in the hunt for a vaccine to Covid-19, many newspapers predict the world will go “back to normal” – but what will “normal” look like?

“Our Little Bottle of Hope”, was the Daily Mirror’s take. “A Great Day for Humanity”, claimed the Daily Telegraph. The Metro hailed “A Shot in the Arm to Beat Covid”. In France, Libération declared that “Pfizer injects a dose of hope”.

All are referring to a new vaccine for Covid-19 that could bring an end to the pandemic that has dramatically reshaped everyone’s lives.

The vaccine has so far been tested on 43,500 people, and it is effective in 90% of cases.

Many were also charmed by the story of Professor Uğur Şahin and Dr Özlem Türeci, the married couple who run the company BioNTech, which developed the vaccine. Both are second-generation migrants to Germany from Turkey.

While the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer funded the vaccine’s development, BioNTech can take the credit for the science. Şahin and Türeci pioneered the use of Messenger RNA (mRNA) to create vaccines: an experimental procedure that was essential to the success of the Covid vaccine.

Most vaccines are difficult to produce in large quantities, because they have to be made using an attenuated form of the virus. An mRNA vaccine uses the genetic code of the virus, which can be replicated much more cheaply.

But this does not yet mean the end of the pandemic. Experts think that more than one vaccine will be necessary to bring the disease under control. Some other vaccines have seen progress, but none are yet ready to be distributed.

And problems can emerge even in late development stages. Final trials of a vaccine developed by Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech had to be halted on Tuesday after a recipient suffered severe side-effects.

While mRNA vaccines are relatively cheap to produce in theory, the BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine has to be stored at -70C: the temperature of liquid nitrogen. It might therefore prove difficult to distribute.

To create immunity, the new vaccine requires two doses, administered three weeks apart. If this is not properly communicated, people may expose themselves to the virus after the first dose, unaware that they are not yet immune.

So, while Professor John Bell raised hopes on Monday that the world would return to normal by the spring of 2021, others have warned that social distancing measures will remain until the summer.

But what does “normal” look like? Should countries try to return to normal, or should they strive for something better?

At the beginning of the pandemic, consumption of fossil fuels fell worldwide as businesses and city centres were locked down. Many hoped that the crisis could be used to reduce the world’s dependency on dirty energy.

However, economies in the G20 have designated $230bn in recovery funds for the fossil fuel industry, compared with just $150bn set aside for renewable energy.

Europe, the USA and the United Kingdom have bought 340 million doses of the vaccine between them. The developing world will have to wait longer to access it. Some see this as another symptom of a “normality” that does not work for everyone.

So, will life ever return to normal?

Worth a shot

Some say yes. They think that the pandemic will be like a forest fire: it quickly goes out, and what was devastated grows back. Shops and pubs will reopen, schools and universities will return to their usual ways of running, employers will bring their workers back to their offices. In ten years’ time, we will have forgotten that the pandemic ever happened.

Not at all, say others. Many shops and pubs have already been forced to close. If it is cheaper for employees to work from home then they might stay there, in which case business districts, and the shops and businesses that rely on them, will have to adapt or die. And it is possible that continued ecological destruction will result in more pandemics in future – Covid-19 might be the new normal.

You Decide

  1. What are the top five things you are looking forward to doing once all Covid-19 restrictions are lifted?
  2. Is it right that richer countries should get the vaccine before poorer ones? How could it be done differently?

Activities

  1. You are going to distribute vaccines around your class. Designate two people to produce the “vaccines”: these can be circles cut out of paper. Then designate six people to be distributors. They have to find the most efficient way of getting the “vaccines” to the rest of the class.
  2. Who should receive the vaccine first? Explain your answer in a short letter to a local newspaper.

Some People Say...

“Living is abnormal.”

Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994), French-Romanian writer.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that vaccines are safe for human beings. Although there has been persistent scaremongering by so-called “anti-vaxxers” in the last two decades over a supposed link between vaccines and autism, in reality all vaccines that are approved for general use are first subjected to a rigorous testing process to ensure that they do not have negative effects on human beings.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over the role of pharmaceutical companies in developing important vaccines. In 1992, one of Pfizer’s subsidiaries, Shiley, was accused of distributing defective heart valves, resulting in the deaths of 300 people. Pfizer also paid out compensation to parents in Nigeria after administering experimental vaccines to their children without their consent. People might be less willing to trust vaccines produced by big, opaque companies with a history of wrongdoing.

Word Watch

Pfizer
A pharmaceuticals company that bankrolled the development of the new Covid-19 vaccine.
Vaccine
An injection or other kind of treatment that prevents someone from contracting a disease. The name comes from Latin vacca, meaning “cow”, because the first vaccine in Europe entailed inoculating people from smallpox by giving them cowpox, a similar but less deadly virus.
Turkey
A country in the eastern Mediterranean. Turks form the largest ethnic minority in Germany. Many (including Professor Şahin’s father) arrived in the 1960s, when they were encouraged to migrate to compensate for labour shortages in Germany.
Messenger RNA
A copy of a DNA strand, used in the process of synthesising proteins. When used in a vaccine, it encourages human cells to produce harmless versions of the protein spikes on the outside of a virus cell, allowing the immune system to produce defences against them, and thus against the virus itself.
Attenuated
Reduced in force or effect. Viruses are attenuated for use in vaccines so that they do not themselves make the patient sick.
Liquid nitrogen
A liquid gas that mostly serves as a coolant. It is also sometimes used to make ice-cream.
G20
An organisation of 19 countries with large economies and the European Union. Its members seek to co-ordinate their economic policies.
Developing world
Also referred to as the “Global South”, this is an umbrella term for the world’s less wealthy countries. Some critics claim that both terms are too broad to be useful.

Subjects

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