The Irish Times view on vaccines: bridging the immunity gap

Scientists around the world are working at an unprecedented pace to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus

A person being injected as part of human trials in the UK for a coronavirus vaccine as an Oxford University vaccine trial for Coronavirus began this week. Photograph: Pool/ PA Wire

A person being injected as part of human trials in the UK for a coronavirus vaccine as an Oxford University vaccine trial for Coronavirus began this week. Photograph: Pool/ PA Wire

 

The urgent need for a Covid-19 vaccine underscores the pivotal role immunisations play in protecting lives and economies. Scientists around the world are working at an unprecedented pace in an effort to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus. The most optimistic timescale is for a usable vaccine to be available in 18 months, but this must be set against a four-year average timescale for new vaccine development.

There are multiple reasons for this slow pace. Much remains to be discovered about the novel coronavirus – whether it will remain stable or if it will mutate in a similar way to influenza; how effective the first of any newly developed vaccines will be; and, most importantly, the safety profile of any new vaccine, which needs to be established before any mass immunisation campaign begins.

This week is European Immunisation Week, an annual event promoted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to raise awareness of the importance of immunisation in preserving human life. Organisers have this year chosen to emphasise the risk of infectious disease outbreaks when routine childhood vaccinations are missed – as is inevitable in health systems that have sharply pivoted to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.

In 2018, around 527,000 children missed their first dose of measles vaccine in the WHO European region. One year later the measles virus exposed immunity gaps in Europe, infecting over 100,000 people across all age groups. As the WHO has pointed out, it is critical that routine immunisation programmes continue during this crisis, and reaching the most vulnerable children who have missed routine immunisations in the past should be prioritised.

Immunisation programmes have been under pressure in recent times from anti-vaccine activists. But there are signs of greater interest in having children vaccinated among parents who have hesitated in the past, as they witness the devastation wreaked by Covid-19. GPs and public health doctors must ensure immunisation clinics are prioritised as part of returning services to normal.

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