Vaccines: Hope or Hype?

A safe and effective vaccine could be a very important tool to fight and end the covid pandemic. For countries that have managed to keep the new coronavirus out or under control (e.g. New Zealand), mass vaccination of their population is probably the only possible exit strategy.

Pfizer and BioNTech have recently announced that their vaccine is “90% effective”. This simple press release has increased the net worth of the BioNTech founder and the two main investors in the company by $2 billion.

In reality, the “90% effectiveness” claim is based on just 94 cases, whose data hasn’t even been released yet. And vaccine experts have previously noted that the coronavirus vaccine trials are “designed to succeed”: they only consider if a vaccine reduces symptoms – even mild symptoms –, not if it reduces infections, transmission, hospitalizations, or deaths.

In short, the “90% effectiveness” claim, at this point, is mostly PR. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, in particular, is a highly experimental vaccine based on novel mRNA technology and lipid nano particles, whose long-term health impact remains largely unknown.

Historically, vaccines are said to have been a success in the 1957 and 1968 Asian flu pandemics, while they were a failure (ineffective, unnecessary or dangerous) in the 1976 and 2009 “swine flu” pandemics. The jury on the coronavirus vaccines is still out.


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