Waiting for the all clear

It’s great news that our wonderful NHS staff and volunteers are storming forward with the UK’s vaccination programme. Still, I worry about people being lulled into a false sense of security once they have had their first and even second jab.

Most of us will have had, or be getting, the AstraZeneca (Oxford) vaccine. It has an efficacy rate of 70 percent compared to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s 95 percent. These efficacy rates are based on the trials and mark the difference between those who had the vaccine and those who had a placebo (a solution that wasn’t the vaccine). If there’s no difference between the vaccine and placebo groups, the efficacy is zero. If none of those who became sick had been vaccinated, the efficacy is 100 percent.

What we do not know, yet, is the effectiveness of the different vaccines and whether they match the efficacy rate identified in the trials. This is vital, because it is not unusual for the effectiveness rate to turn out lower than the efficacy rate, and that means higher numbers of people becoming ill, requiring hospital, long-term care and support, or not surviving and adding to the already atrocious death rate than the trial data alone had predicted.

I’ve had my first dose of the AstraZeneca (Oxford) vaccine. I would have preferred to have one of the many with a higher efficacy rate, but there is no choice when you are called for your jab. I would also have preferred one, just for my feeling of confidence, that didn’t rely upon my immune system as the AZ one does. However, I was told by a consultant that this shouldn’t make a difference to its effectiveness in my body (I have Type 1 diabetes – an auto-immune condition).

I am very grateful for living in a country that has managed to roll out the first doses of its vaccination programme so well thanks to our NHS, local Government and volunteers. I am not impressed with the fact that my Government has time and again failed to follow the advice and kept the virus in circulation where variants have evolved threatening the effectiveness of the vaccines we have waited for. Like many people with a chronic condition, I have felt like I have been sitting on a time-bomb this past year waiting for the bomb disposal unit to arrive with a working vaccine. Despite having had my first dose, I am still waiting for the all-clear.

I understand why it is easier to use the AstraZeneca vaccine than one with a higher efficacy rate that has to be kept at such low temperatures. Still, I would question why people with underlying conditions, such as diabetes, are not offered the one with the highest efficacy result given the mortality rate – one in three deaths in hospital of people with underlying conditions had diabetes.

My fear is the Government will again lift the constraints too early, and the prize of an effective rate that matches the efficacy rate – itself no guarantee of returning to life pre-COVID-19 – will not be met. Even if it is, the difference between a 70 and 95 percent effectiveness rate is still enormous in human misery terms and cost to our NHS.

I’m afraid my 18 years working with a number of the people who have been making these decisions in Government does little to give me much hope. However, I would never discourage anyone from having whatever vaccine is offered. Even a low efficacy rate is better than zero

* Adrian Sanders is a Focus deliver in Paignton, Devon, and was the MP for Torbay from 1997 to 2015.