Kathy Sheridan: A sudden, blinding bout of sadness accompanied my vaccine appointment

In real life, face-to-face with someone shrunken by 13 months of rules and worry, my news would have been akin to a taunt

The Oxford/AstraZeneca remains a kind of scientific miracle. The specific clot risk translates to a total of five deaths if the entire population was vaccinated with it. Photograph: iStock

The Oxford/AstraZeneca remains a kind of scientific miracle. The specific clot risk translates to a total of five deaths if the entire population was vaccinated with it. Photograph: iStock

 

The appointment came via text within 18 hours of registration. Efficiency gone mad. Could it be real ? A repeat message pinged in two hours later. Liberation was five days and a 15-minute drive away.

My reaction was unexpected : a sudden, blinding bout of sadness. The first text arrived during a chat across a gate with a 70-something still awaiting a confirmed appointment. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the news. That hesitancy clarified why otherwise generous-spirited friends were grizzling about the gallery of newly vaccinateds beaming triumphantly out of social media. In real life, face-to-face with someone shrunken by 13 months of rules and worry, my news would have been akin to a taunt.

My thoughts ranged across younger friends with serious underlying conditions and the quiet, stoical ones for whom the lost year may be life-changing and to the grieving families surely wondering about the vicissitudes of time and fortune.

Call me a curmudgeon but it felt like an involuntary mental sweep over a long and bloody battle scene. Right now our side is winning but for many it’s not over. You try to unsee that image from a Brazilian hospital of two disposable gloves filled with hot water, tied together and placed over a patient’s hand to simulate human contact; or to swipe past reports of oxygen and ventilator shortages and bodies being cremated on open pavements in India.

Boris Johnson is already assuring UK residents of a third (booster) vaccine in the autumn. Every nation must look out for its own of course

The great mantra of the pandemic holds true: no one is safe till everyone is safe. The in-fighting and horse race-style reporting about which interest group or rich European country is inching ahead of another rich country is mind-boggling. As variants from South Africa, Brazil and India come to bite us we should be joining the dots.

Vaccine nationalism

Canada has enough doses on order to inoculate Canadians five times over. Boris Johnson is already assuring UK residents of a third (booster) vaccine in the autumn. Every nation must look out for its own of course but here’s a thought: the global cost of vaccine nationalism could land at somewhere between $1.8 trillion and $3.8 trillion, according to an International Chamber of Commerce research foundation study. This is not some touchy-feely index. If infection is allowed to rage in emerging markets, richer economies remain at risk of a drag on GDP. Finding a way to vaccinate the poorest would pay serious economic dividends.

The sensible strategy is to support lower-income countries so they can produce their own vaccines with an eye to zapping local mutations and future pandemics.

And so a kind of two-headed battle is on to have vaccine manufacturers waive their patents for low-income countries.

Last May when the World Health Organisation proposed a voluntary pool of patent rights, therapies, vaccines and diagnostics, Pfizer’s CEO Albert Boula dismissed it as “nonsense, and . . . also dangerous”.

Companies were “investing billions to find a solution and, keep in mind, if you have a discovery, we are going to take your [intellectual property], I think, is dangerous”. He had a point. Given the massive investments of expertise, ingenuity, time and trials in hi-tech medicine and vaccine development (and many fail as we’ve learned from the array of early vaccine bets), there has to be a reasonable, long-term return.

Just over a year ago, face masks (WHO-approved in April 2020) were our only material protection. We learned to fashion them from T-shirts

Those who boast of getting “the Pfizer” (dose) are among the first human beneficiaries of the messenger RNA technology which could yet be harnessed for vaccines against cancer, HIV and TB. Who wouldn’t want that potential to be funded and explored at speed ?

Then again billions of government funds and co-operation have gone to pharma companies through various channels. It was US government scientists who helped make the key discovery of how to stabilise spike proteins crucial to mRNA technology. The science progresses on the shoulders of giants and global visionaries. The implementation, not so much.

Awkward pause

The World Health Organisation’s ACT Accelerator (of which Covax is the vaccines pillar) has commitments of just a third of the amount needed for 2021.

Meanwhile in the rich world, we have learned to be picky about our life-saving vaccines. A hierarchy is now well developed. The mention that mine – being in the 60-69 group – will be the AstraZeneca elicits an awkward pause from the Pfizer lot as if it’s the dregs of a fire sale. One part of my brain understands why.

The company’s inexperience, its bumbling trials reporting, it disastrous overpromising, communications and secrecy, not to mention the vaccine’s association with a rare blood clot, have kept its name in the headlines and made plenty of sworn enemies.

Yet the Oxford/AstraZeneca remains a kind of scientific miracle. The specific clot risk translates to a total of five deaths if the entire population was vaccinated with it.

Just over a year ago, face masks (WHO-approved in April 2020) were our only material protection. We learned to fashion them from T-shirts. Aer Lingus crews were running PPE supplies for the Government from Beijing on extraordinary 29-hour return flights, never exiting the aircraft there because they would have been required to go into Chinese quarantine; drug dealers were using masks to diversify their portfolios; road shipments required armed security and in just one instance of an American smash-and-grab, cargo bound for France was diverted on the Shanghai airport tarmac.

Thanks to the vaccines and luck, that all feels like another world.

When my AstraZeneca day comes this week, I’ll raise a glass to the scientists, to the heroes, to the stoics and to the helpers. And to absent friends. Wish you were here.

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