With only two months left until Christmas, it’s time to start thinking about presents. What I would like to give this year to my 91-year-old mother who has been isolating herself since March because of her age, is a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine.
But how likely is it that there will be one, let alone being offered to vulnerable people like my mother?
Last week I read two contradictory views. Kate Bingham, the chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, said a vaccine could be ready ‘this side of Christmas’.
What I would like to give this year to my 91-year-old mother who has been isolating herself since March due to her age is a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine [File photo]
But its chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, was much more pessimistic, saying we might not have one until spring 2021, or even later.
So who is right? I reached out to someone I know well who really understands the situation – Professor Robin Shattock, head of mucosal infection and immunity at Imperial College London, who leads the team at the forefront of developing a Covid 19 vaccine.
What he had to say admittedly made me appreciate the magnitude of the challenge, but it reassured me that science will save us. Robin believes there is a safe and effective vaccine on the way, but how soon we get it “depends on the numbers.”
One of the most critical factors is the percentage of people who receive a vaccine and then develop Covid-19.
No vaccine will be 100 percent protective (the flu vaccine is about 40 to 60 percent effective), but even if the new vaccine is only 50 percent effective, Robin says it will still have a huge impact.
Its chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, was much more pessimistic, saying we may not have one until spring 2021, or even later.
Each new vaccine is tested for safety in animals and smaller human trials before moving on to large-scale randomized trials involving tens of thousands of volunteers.
In these studies, some will receive the real vaccine, while others will receive a placebo. After that, the researchers have to wait for a reasonable number of volunteers, say 200, to actually catch the Covid-19 virus.
This is the bit they cannot predict or control. It can take weeks, or it can take months, depending on how much virus is in circulation.
All the while, independent researchers have been busy checking how many of those infected have received the real vaccine and how many the placebo.
Only if they have good evidence that the vaccine provides better protection than the placebo can they apply for approval to use it more widely.
There is a way to speed up this process and that is through so-called human challenge studies.
After volunteers are vaccinated, they are intentionally exposed to Covid-19. There is of course the danger that if it doesn’t work, you can make people seriously ill.
Nevertheless, it was announced this week that Imperial College, in partnership with others, hopes to begin the first human challenge trials at the Royal Free Hospital in London (my old medical school) in early 2021.
The good news is that, so far, of the nine or so most promising vaccine candidates, all appear to be safe and elicit a good immune response.
But which one, I asked Robin, are people like my mom most likely to access it, and when?
He would not set a definite timetable for it, but thought the vaccines produced by drug giants Pfizer and AstraZeneca (in partnership with the University of Oxford) were the closest to approval by UK regulators.
“I’d put them neck and neck,” said Robin, “with all bets on who will be first.”
Pfizer has already produced hundreds of thousands of doses and could be ready for approval by the end of November.
Oxford is also expected to report results within the next two months, and its partner plans to produce 400 million doses by the end of the year.
There are no guarantees, of course, and as Robin pointed out to me, “just because it’s the first doesn’t mean it’s the best.”
The vaccine his team is working on is a few months behind current leaders, and there are many others in various stages of testing.
More hurdles lie ahead, including the legitimate concern that large numbers of people may refuse to be vaccinated, as some fear the process will be rushed.
But the good news is, you need less than 60 percent of the population to have a vaccine to have any real effect, and I think there are enough sensible people to make that happen.
The scientists are well aware that nothing can be rushed, because the worst that can happen is a vaccine with unexpected side effects.
Due to the need to exercise extreme caution, Professor Shattock says it would be ‘a little miracle’ to have a vaccine proven to be safe and effective by the end of the year. But if you can’t hope for a miracle at Christmas, when can you?
Couples are really alike
Many years ago I made a TV series called Secrets of the Sexes in which we tested the claim that we are attracted to people who are like us.
We recruited 100 young men and women and organized a speed dating event. We also had a few scientists predict, based on the looks and profiles of our recruits, who would be attracted to whom.
In our experiment, it turned out that people were really not attracted to lookalikes. A woman who was presented with a picture of her ‘perfect partner’ said, ‘Yuk! He looks exactly like my brother! ‘
But this goes against new research showing that long-term couples tend to look alike. So maybe couples become more like each other over time?
A woman who was presented with a picture of her ‘perfect partner’ said, ‘Yuk! He looks exactly like my brother! But this goes against new research showing that long-term couples tend to look alike [File photo]
To find out, researchers at Stanford University in the US compiled a database of photos of 517 couples taken shortly after their wedding and decades later.
Using advanced facial recognition software, they showed that couples no longer look alike in the long term.
So this research supports the claim that we tend to choose long-term partners who are similar to us.
So why did our speed dating experiment show the opposite?
You may be instantly attracted to someone who doesn’t look like you, but if you decide to settle down, it’s the lookalike that wins.
Are you sitting comfortably? Continue!
We all know that prolonged sitting is bad for your health. So a while ago I bought a standing desk and cut the time I spent sitting down to a fraction of what it had been.
Unfortunately, I overdid it. The long hours of standing led to inflammation of my Achilles tendon, which broke while I was running. Prove that you can have too much of a good thing.
But for those who sit a lot, it’s not all bad news. At least, that was the conclusion of a recent study from Colorado State University in the US in which 228 healthy adults (60 to 80 years old) were equipped with activity sensors. They also underwent cognitive tests to measure intellectual performance.
As expected, the more active people had better reaction times and memory. But those who sat more did better in vocabulary and reasoning tasks. Why? The researchers think it is possible that sedentary types spend more time on mentally stimulating activities, such as reading or doing puzzles.
This is not an excuse to keep watching TV, but you shouldn’t feel guilty about reading a good book.
As expected, the more active people had better reaction times and memory. But those who sat more did better in vocabulary and reasoning tasks. Why? [File photo]