The government’s announcement that a Covid-19 vaccine has been approved for use is a source of hope for millions of people across Britain.
The NHS is set to take delivery of 800,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine imminently—enough to immunise 400,000 people. And, ministers say they will get several million more doses before the end of this year.
But given the Tories appalling record of handling all aspects of the coronavirus crisis, there are already many reasons to be cautious about the news.
The priority list published today by the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation lists nine categories of people who should receive jabs in phase one.
At the top of the list are residents of care homes for older adults. Second are those who are over 80 years old and all frontline health and social care workers.
Those two categories alone add up to several million people.
There are, for example, around 500,000 people in care homes and 3.2 million people over the age of 80 in Britain. There are over 1.5 million people working in adult social care. And, NHS England alone employs around 500,000 frontline medical staff.
The total number of high risk people in all categories is roughly 17 million.
The infrastructure required to vaccinate that number of people, some of whom cannot be moved from their homes, is enormous. And, thanks to years of cuts, the NHS simply does not have the capacity to do it.
It is made even more complicated by the fact that the Pfizer vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees and used within five days of being removed from an ultra-cold freezer.
These units are generally found at large hospitals, not at local GP surgeries.
Health secretary Matt Hancock’s plan appears to rest on recruiting thousands of non-medical staff to inject people—including anyone who has had some basic first aid training.
He says this will be supplemented by tens of thousands of volunteers.
Lynn Thomas, medical director for St John Ambulance, a charity, said the organisation had been asked to supply 30,500 people to support up to 100 mass vaccination centres.
The Pfizer drug seems likely to be given emergency authorisation by both US and European Union drug agencies in the coming weeks.
That will almost certainly lead to huge demand outstripping supply.
And, although governments deny it will be allowed, the rich will try to jump the queue.
Mark Ali, founder of the Private Harley Street Clinic in London, told the Financial Times newspaper that “he has received calls every day from clients about when they will be able to access doses of a coronavirus vaccine. He hoped that early next year ‘some of it could enter into the private market’.”
Any such move would be outrageous.
It seems likely, the NHS cannot depend on just the Pfizer vaccine alone. The government may be forced to use supplies of the less effective Astrazenica/Oxford University immunisation which could lead to a new crisis emerging.
Who should be judged fit enough to be offered only a weaker vaccine?
Perhaps the greatest problem is that the majority of the world’s population are likely to be left without a vaccine for some considerable time to come.
The drug costs, combined with logistical costs, will mean that billions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America will still be vulnerable to Covid-19.
That in turn presents a problem for the whole of humanity. The longer the virus circulates among humans the more risk there is that it will mutate and make vaccinations less effective in the future.
The only rational response is that the manufacture and distribution of these vital drugs must be taken out of private hands.
The patents that surround the vaccines should be lifted, and the technical knowledge of how to produce them should be made freely available to all.
But the insatiable search for profit means capitalism will never allow such a thing. And that should convince us that the only way to safeguard the future of humanity is to replace the rotten system.
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