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Coronavirus: Even with vaccine – we must get used to COVID like flu, says Prof Van-Tam

Even with vaccine – we must get used to COVID like flu (Image: PA)

But the death toll will be drastically reduced if vaccines are even partially successful, said Professor Jonathan Van-Tam.

Prof Van-Tam said he was “cautiously optimistic” that a vaccine would be usable by the end of the year. However, it is unlikely to offer complete immunity and may involve further adaptation of the vaccine programme, for example annual “booster” jabs. This would still offer vital protection to the most at-risk groups, he insisted.

Prof Van-Tam envisaged that social distancing will remain in some form until spring while the pandemic was brought under control.

But Kate Bingham, chair of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, said she ultimately believed science, rather than social measures, would tackle Covid.

She said: “The lockdown is a blunt instrument. Science will ultimately beat this pandemic.”

Prof Van-Tam was speaking after it emerged a potential vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford, appeared safe and triggered an immune response.

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The UK has already ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine.

Asked if he was confident a vaccine would be developed he said: “Yes and with cautious optimism we might have some by the end of the year. We do not know yet which age groups the vaccine will be effective in, nor how long the vaccine will be effective for.

“As a scientist I really welcome the fact that we are engaging with multiple vaccine companies with different types of vaccines.

“I’m perfectly prepared for the possibility that we may need to give boosters in the same way we give a repeat annual flu vaccination, or that the first vaccine we get may not be the one we come to rely on in the long term.

“Those are all unknowns, but I don’t think it changes my basic optimism.

“There is so much effort in this space internationally and so many different vaccine candidates, it is relatively likely one of them will prove to be successful.”

Success, he said, would be a safe and effective product that could be used as a licenced medicine.

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But he added: “How far it will get us out of the Covid-19 conundrum is unknown at the moment.

“My view is that it will give us a vaccine that is very important in patients who are at very high risk of a bad outcome and a bad illness, but we will not get to the point where we have eradicated Covid-19. This is a virus we will have to live with in the same way we live with flu year after year. And let’s not forget, flu kills up to 17,000 people in this country every winter.

“We talk a lot about the awful death toll we’ve just had from Covid-19 and there’s much media attention on it, but actually, in a way we’ve normalised and stopped talking about the year-on-year burden of flu.

“The vaccines are unlikely to result in disease eradication and the disease will come and go for many years to come, if not indefinitely.

“But, if proven to be effective, vaccines are likely to bring about serious reductions in the levels of illness, hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19.”

The fear of flu and Covid circulating hand-in-hand this winter remained a worry, he said, urging those who qualified for a flu vaccine to ensure they received one.

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He also said that he believed social distancing measures would remain until next year.

He said: “Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has gone on record saying he thinks things like social distancing, like hand hygiene, are going to be here to stay for a long time. I agree with that.”

But he added that these measures would also save lives by keeping flu at bay. In Hong Kong, he said, flu circulation had fallen “quite dramatically”. And in Australia, which is usually in the full swing of flu at this time of year, “there is almost no flu”.

He said: “That may well be because of the other effects on respiratory viruses that all these measures are having.”

Ms Bingham said that the country was in a “different place” to March, when lockdown began, pointing out there were now a range of possible treatments against Covid whereas previously there were none.

She said: “The lockdown is a blunt instrument. Science will ultimately beat this pandemic.

“We are in a different place compared to where we were in March – even in the absence of a vaccine at the moment.

“Vaccination is not the only scientific tool we have in managing this disease. We also have drugs.

“It is like HIV – even if we don’t get an effective vaccine which we have not developed for HIV – we can now effectively manage this with a cocktail of anti-viral drugs. There are plenty of drugs which are effective against Covid and we may need a combination of these together with a possible vaccine.”

Mrs Bingham agreed with Prof Van-Tam that a vaccine was likely, but may not be a silver bullet for the virus.

She said: “By the end of the year I think we may well have a vaccine that works.

“How many doses we will produce and for whom is a separate issue

“There are four different types of Covid vaccine and we need to put our bets on more than one of them as we don’t know what will work at the moment.

“But it is not likely a vaccine will work for everyone.

“Some may trigger a strong immune response and others may elicit a much milder response.

“It may be we give the milder versions to younger people who are at less risk from the virus.

“We are seeing a global co-ordinated effort and collaboration amongst a tonne of smart people who have come together.

“If I was betting, I think we will not end up with a sterilising vaccine immediately – i.e. an inoculation that gives complete immune protection.

“But I think we will initially have a vaccine that protects us from Covid’s most severe symptoms.”

 To register your interest in taking part in a vaccine trial visit: nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/research/coronavirus-vaccine-research

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