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Get to know how science works before making claims about Covid-19


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

If history is anything to go by, there probably will not be a vaccine for at least another 12 months – probably 18 months. For instance, it took four years from collecting samples to licencing a mumps vaccine in the mid-1960s. It’s just as well we have made significant scientific and technological advances since then.

With South Africa entering unknown territory, and notwithstanding the fact that we have either delayed or seem to be in control of the spread of Covid-19, we need as much information, as many ideas and science-based evidence, as possible. Now is not the time for peddling (political) conspiracies, and “cures” or diets, that do more harm, and have the danger of making everyone complacent, or introducing a false sense of confidence. 

It is difficult to admit, but we are nowhere close to reaching the peak of infections in South Africa and the world is nowhere close to finding a cure, or a vaccination. This is precisely the time not to listen to your rabbi, or your imam, or your minister (other than when they tell you to stay at home, wear a mask and gloves, and keep your loved ones safe). I can say, without fear of contradiction, that prayer has never solved any health problems.

It is also not the time to listen to those professional people – let us be generous and assume they mean well – who have carved careers out of self-help, weight-loss advice, or some other type of silliness. They tend to cause more damage than anything else with their bizarre theories, and scientism – which is different from being scientific. Here I should insert a huge caveat. 

First, I am not a scientist. I know when to keep my mouth shut and listen to people who know their subject better than I ever could. Which means I really should enter monastic silence – I’ve always had a soft spot for Śūnyatā. Second, if I have learned anything, over the years, it is that I, like most people, have to learn how science works, before making grandiloquent statements. So, far be it for me to make pronouncements on a cure or a vaccination for Covid-19 (I’m just a hack and an insomniac), but this much insight I can dispense with, with lots of humility: Get to know how science works. 

Let us get one thing out of the way. Unless there is a miraculous breakthrough, we are at least 12-19 months from delivering a vaccine. Let’s consider, now, how vaccines work. Most vaccines don’t actually cure disease. What they do is prevent a person from getting infected in the first place. Vaccines invariably contain the same germ (or part of a germ) that causes a disease, in the first place, but in a killed or weakened state so that it doesn’t actually make you sick. The body’s immune system (then) learns about the pathogen, stores information about it, and produces antibodies against it so that the next time it appears, the body has the ability to fight it off. A vaccine is not a cure. 

We have been at this for millennia. In about 430 BCE, folk realised that people who had smallpox, and survived, developed an immunity to it. Through successive victories and losses, scientists declared smallpox to have been eradicated. Because I always leave room for irrationalities, we can only hope that smallpox does not return…

Don’t wait up for Covid-19 disease

As things stand, we have to work with the information that is before us and not rush to conclusions on the basis of asymmetries in information, or our confirmation biases or see opportunities for self-dramatisation (and profiteering). We have to take heed of what the scientists say, represented most recently by Professor Salim Abdool Karim and Dr Zweli Mkhize, the Minister of Health. They have, thankfully, given primacy to human safety with a solid nod to “the economy” – which President Cyril Ramaphosa is addressing with the relevant stakeholders, almost daily. 

In the meantime, in South Africa and around the world, pharmaceutical companies and universities are racing to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. The World Trade Organisation has reported that there were at least 62 efforts underway, based on early evidence that coronavirus patients can produce antibodies, in blood that attacks and neutralises viruses. On this basis, scientists are cautiously optimistic that a vaccine will emerge and that it will be successful. There were some hurried declarations of something akin to a victory when one company, Moderna Therapeutics, was reported to have an early prospect ready for clinical trials just 42 days after the genetic sequence for the coronavirus was released. Public officials, eager to score early points, were quick to cite this as a record-breaking development, because the biotechnology underlying this drug has reportedly existed for nearly 30 years – yet they seem to have failed at producing a working vaccine for any human disease. 

Vaccines are just that, they are not a cure

By all accounts, vaccines work by convincing the body’s immune system to mount a response to a foreign invader, whether it’s a bacterium, or a virus – or any kind of parasite. Historically, methods for developing a vaccine involve taking a whole virus, weakening or killing it, then injecting its remains into a person’s body. That’s how traditional vaccines were made for smallpox, measles and the seasonal flu – unless it’s a runaway influenza strain.

This established technique relies heavily on the human immune system reacting to individual proteins that are made by the germ, usually those that envelop the virus’s surface, and that will (under ideal conditions) cause the body to produce antibodies. Over time, the producers of vaccines have realised that they didn’t need a whole virus, but could use (or substitute) a single protein to generate a robust immune response. The consensus is that protein-based vaccines are easier and cheaper to produce. They have, also, become the most common variety prescribed by doctors. 

The biggest problem we face with developing a vaccine for Covid-19 is that there is no medically proven predecessor for any type of human coronavirus, notwithstanding the fact that the 2002 SARS and 2012 MERS outbreaks (which caused less than 2,000 deaths), which were caused by related viruses of the new coronavirus, were early warnings. Where does all of this leave us? Well, for now, take the advice of the scientists – especially the epidemiologists, biologists and, just because it’s a pet subject, the physicists.

What we, ordinary folk, should probably do, is get on with our lives – even during lockdown or partial lockdown, take the necessary precautions – and not wait up for a Covid-19 virus. If history is anything to go by, there probably will not be a vaccine for at least another 12 months – probably 18 months. For instance, it took four years from collecting samples (for a mumps vaccine), to licencing a mumps vaccine in the mid-1960s. It’s just as well we have made significant scientific and technological advances since then.

One reason for the protracted process is because of the required (and absolutely necessary) clinical trials. Clinical trials for Covid-19 may only be completed by September or October 2020 – or maybe in April or June 2021. It all depends on the evidence, the results (the science), and the safety checks. For now, even if, as I just wrote above, we should not expect any breakthrough for at least 12 months, it would be reckless (on my part) to fix any dates. Did I mention I am not a scientist? DM


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