In the news          October 1, 2020

Vaccines: the good, the bad, the ugly – what will the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine be like?

            The remarkable decline in child mortality that began more than a century ago was due to three major advances: sanitation, antibiotics and vaccines.

            Vaccines have been around for thousands of years. The ancient Chinese and Persians inoculated their children with the dried crusts of smallpox lesions, a practice that was used until the late 18th century when the more benign cowpox vaccine came into wide use. A concerted effort led by the World Health Organization eradicated smallpox in the 1970s, a dreadful disease that killed several hundred thousand persons every year.

            A unique feature of vaccines is the variability in their effectiveness, duration of protection and side effects. Persons who received the ancient smallpox vaccine sometimes died; even the modern smallpox vaccine often caused severe disease in children with eczema and it killed those who had an unrecognized defect in their immune system.

            The truly ugly feature of immunization is human error caused by contamination or by mistakenly administering the wild virus instead of the benign vaccine version. Such catastrophes occurred with a diphtheria vaccine and a polio vaccine, respectively.

            There is no prescription medication that does not have side effects, sometimes fatal ones. We shouldn’t expect that vaccines will be entirely benign either although except for the immunocompromised person, as mentioned, a fatal outcome is rare.  

            There is no way to know how effective or how risky coronavirus vaccines will be, especially since there are more than 150 companies in the race and some developers are using new and innovative formulations. Even if we assume an extremely optimistic rollout of a billion or two doses in 2021 it will take at least a few months and possibly more than a year before physicians can be assured of its effectiveness.

            The media regularly warn that political pressure will lead to hasty, premature release of an inadequately tested vaccine. I doubt that for one simple reason: the lawyers, not the politicians or the scientists will decide when a vaccine is ready to be released. A company that has everything to lose if their vaccine fails will not be let out of the gate until the corporate attorneys say so.


            Here’s another Annoyance of Aging: discrimination. Although there are laws against age discrimination in the workplace there are some logical and acceptable reasons for leaving seniors out of some occupations that require strength and stamina. On the other hand there is no reason why a car rental company won’t give a 71-year-old access to a vehicle as in some countries, or even 61 in the case of Morocco. Kudos to Finland, where you can rent a car until your 97th birthday!

            There is a bright side, of course. Movies cost less, national parks are free, people hold the door open for you and you can’t get pregnant.

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