Coronavirus and the Netherlands: What you need to know about the vaccine
On Monday, American pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced that the coronavirus vaccine they were developing with BioNTech had proven to be 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infection. A number of companies around the world have been working tirelessly for months in the hopes of developing an effective vaccine, and so Pfizer’s announcement came as a relief to many.
But while Pfizer says their vaccine works, what does this mean for the global - and national - battle against the coronavirus? And how long will it take before the vaccine can be rolled out? Here’s everything you need to know about the coronavirus vaccine.
Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine trial
The announcement from vaccine developers Pfizer and BioNTech marks a significant milestone in the battle against coronavirus, as this is the first one showing sufficient evidence of effectiveness. In the press release, the developers state the vaccine was found to be more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infection seven days after the second dose.
The vaccine is currently in phase three of the trial period, and has been tested on 43.500 people across six countries: Germany, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Turkey, and the US. No safety concerns have been raised. The developers described it as “a great day for science and humanity.”
While the vaccine does show promise, it is important to note that this announcement is based on only the first 94 volunteers to develop COVID-19. Therefore, the success rate and results of the trial could change - for better or worse - when all the results are analysed. The long-term effects of the vaccine are also still unknown.
Dr. Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, said in a statement: “We are a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis.”
What happens next?
Pfizer and BioNTech are hoping to publish the interim results of their trials within the coming two weeks. Then, their next step is to apply for emergency FDA approval for the vaccine so it can be used in the US by the end of the month. The companies will have to apply for EMA approval before the vaccine can be rolled out in Europe, and while the process will likely be fast-tracked, it could take a little longer than in the US.
The developers are confident that, once the vaccine has received the necessary approval, they will be able to provide 50 million doses by the end of 2020, and around 1,3 billion doses by the end of 2021. But countries will not be able to roll out the vaccine until it has been approved.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, told the BBC that he could say with “some confidence” that life could be back to normal by spring 2021.
Still a long way to go
Scientists in the Netherlands note that, while this is a huge step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. Anke Huckriede, professor of vaccinology at the University of Groningen, told NOS she was not yet ready to agree the news marked a “great day for science and humanity,” saying: “That's a bit strong, but it certainly is good news."
Is the vaccine safe? How does it work?
A number of people have expressed concern about how fast the vaccines are being developed, and fear this could result in oversights in regards to potential side effects. However, a number of experts note that, when it comes to medication and vaccinations, nothing - including paracetamol - is 100 percent safe. Virologist Ab Osterhaus said over the summer that while in the development of any vaccine minor side effects cannot be prevented, there is no reason to believe that a coronavirus vaccine is associated with significant risks.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine relies on an experimental approach that involves injecting part of the virus’s genetic code (called messenger RNA) in order to train the immune system. When someone is vaccinated, messenger RNA instructs the body to produce the coronavirus spike protein. This, in turn, prompts the immune system to produce antibodies and activate T-cells which destroy the virus. Therefore, after being vaccinated, if the body encounters coronavirus, the antibodies and T-cells are triggered to fight the virus.
When could it come to the Netherlands?
Once the EMA has approved the vaccine, the Dutch Medicines Evaluation Board (MEB) will do the same. The European Commission has purchased 200 million units, with an option to purchase a further 100 million at a later date.
But how many of those are for the Netherlands? Well, the country is set to receive 3,89 percent of the initial order of 200 million, which amounts to around 7,78 million doses. However, because the vaccination process consists of two doses, this will mean only 3,89 million people in the Netherlands will be able to be vaccinated.
Therefore, it will be a slow process, and the Netherlands won’t receive one big bulk order. Instead, the country will receive a number of smaller deliveries over several months. If the EMA approves the vaccine quickly, the first people could receive it as early as December and January, but this will only apply to hundreds of thousands of people - not millions.
Who will receive the vaccine first?
This is a huge question that countries across the world are struggling to come up with an answer to. With each country receiving only a small number of units, it’s tricky to decide who should be prioritised.
In the Netherlands, the groups that will likely be prioritised are the elderly and vulnerable, people who stand a higher chance of spreading the virus (i.e. police officers and doctors), and people working in key jobs (i.e. teachers). It is likely that not everyone in the country will be vaccinated, and that the vaccine will be rolled out gradually, targeting specific groups.
The ultimate goal is to achieve herd immunity. The number of people who need to be vaccinated in order to achieve this depends on the effectiveness of the vaccine in question. For example, if it is 100 percent effective in preventing infection, then "only" around 60 percent of the Netherlands would have to be vaccinated.
Will vaccination be mandatory in the Netherlands?
Back in September, it was announced that the Dutch government would not make vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory in the Netherlands. Similarly to the CoronaMelder app, employers will not be allowed to force workers to be vaccinated.
In October, Health Minister Hugo de Jonge highlighted the importance of a vaccine, but said he didn’t support making vaccination compulsory, as he felt this would “undermine the support for vaccination.”
What about the other vaccines being developed?
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine isn’t the only one in development - there are around a dozen vaccines in the final stages of testing. So far, the Netherlands has purchased units from six trials, including Pfizer and BioNTech.
In October, it was announced that the Netherlands had purchased 7,8 million units of a vaccine being developed by Leiden pharmaceutical company Janssen. If the trials go to plan, it is expected this vaccine will be available from early 2021.
Together with Germany, France, and Italy, the Netherlands has also signed a contract for 200 million doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine. The trial is still ongoing, but the company hopes their vaccine will be available by mid-2021.
The Netherlands has also purchased 8,8 million doses of the Curevac vaccine, 3,1 million of the Moderna vaccine, and 11,7 million of the Sanofi/GSK vaccine.