From the file

The Vaccine | Our way out of the coronavirus pandemic has been discovered – but not yet delivered.

Further reading

Friday 15 January 2021

The coronavirus vaccine is a remarkable scientific achievement – but so, too, is vaccination in general. Here is a selection of extra reading material, from history books to recent polling numbers, so that you can discover more


Vaccines through time

The history of vaccination begins with the 18th-century scientist Edward Jenner – sort of. The basic idea that he developed, protecting people from disease by exposing them to disease, actually stretches back centuries before his birth, but earlier examples tend to be forms of inoculation or variolation: direct exposure of patients to the disease itself, which was a very risky practice.

Jenner’s innovation was to realise that a less serious exposure could help people build immunity against a more serious disease. In his experiments, cowpox – a virus related to smallpox, though much less dangerous – was used to protect people from the deadly smallpox itself. Hence “vaccination”, from the latin word, vacca, for cow. The story is told in academic detail, and situated in its full historical context, in Michael Bennett’s War Against Smallpox. If you’re looking for a slimmer read, then Albert Marrin’s Dr Jenner and the Speckled Monster is worth tracking down second-hand.

In the two-and-a-bit centuries since Jenner’s work, the science of vaccination has become more and more refined – as explained in Michael Kinch’s general history Between Hope and Fear. In fact, an interview that NPR conducted with Kinch in 2018 serves as a decent, short introduction to the subject as a whole.

One of the most crucial refinements came in the 1960s, with the work of Leonard Hayflick – or should that be the subterfuge of Leonard Hayflick? Meredith Wadman’s brilliant The Vaccine Race tells the thriller-like story of how Hayflick secretly took pristine “WI-38” human cells, his own work, from his former employers, the Wistar Institute, to his new employers, Stanford University, from where he sold them to drug companies. The cells themselves were (and still are) crucial to the development of new vaccines.

The Covid vaccines

The most recent chapter in the history of vaccination could be the most remarkable, and is also, of course, the subject of this week’s Tortoise File: the double-quick discovery and delivery of a vaccine – or vaccines – for Covid-19. Our own “user’s guide” should answer some of the fundamental questions surrounding these vaccines.

More broadly, Ed Yong’s writing on the pandemic for The Atlantic has been comprehensive and unmissable. His essay on the hunt for a vaccine, published in December, captures the unprecedented scale and success of this scientific endeavour, as well as some of the problems that can arise when everyone rushes to do the same thing at once. “The quest for COVID‑19 treatments was slowed by a torrent of shoddy studies whose results were meaningless at best and misleading at worst,” he writes. “Many of the thousands of clinical trials that were launched were too small to produce statistically solid results.”

Yong’s Atlantic colleague Sarah Zhang also offered a reality check in the form of this article on why the discovery of a vaccine is only the “beginning of the end”.

Lawrence Wright’s 30,000-word, whole-issue-of-the-NewYorker-filling essay on ‘The Plague Year’ has also received plenty of attention. Its passages on the vaccines, concentrated in its third section, are both a great potted history of modern vaccine development and an account of the high pressures and high stakes that scientists faced.

For more on the science, this Vox article does a good job of explaining in simple terms the “completely new technology” behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, while this Sky News report does likewise for the Oxford vaccine.

And another Vox article: this one on the potential for variants of Covid-19 to at least undermine the work done so far in labs.

The UK’s vaccination programme

Matthew d’Ancona’s audio essay, ‘Shot in the dark’, led our coverage this week and reveals the political decision-making – some of it admirable, much of it messy or worse – that lies behind the vaccination programme in the UK.

One of the main figures in Matt’s essay, Kate Bingham, was interviewed by The Times (£) after completing a six-month stint as head of the country’s Vaccine Taskforce. Among her main points: that Britain’s speediness in getting a vaccine to the public is not just a British triumph. “The reason we are in a good position,” she explains, “is because of global collaboration and a massive cooperation between companies and countries and scientists and clinicians.”

That said, the Atlantic’s Tom McTague does suggest that the politics of the vaccination could work in Britain’s favour – or, rather, that Boris Johnson’s government could make them work in its favour. “Fast-tracking authorization of a vaccine that was produced in the EU under EU law is not an argument in favor of Brexit,” he writes, “but it is an example of what Britain wants to do in the future.”

But the vaccine isn’t just important in the corridors of power: this enjoyable Times report (£) demonstrates that it matters in trading halls, too. Apparently, the announcement of the first vaccine caused a “surge” of stock buying and selling – to the point of crashing the necessary computer systems.

And where will all this lead? Of course, the aim is to vaccinate – and thereby protect – all of the UK population. But “herd immunity” should start kicking in in the meantime. Matthew d’Ancona and I explained this scientific concept last May, back when, in the absence of a vaccine, it was a much more controversial prospect.

Anti-vaxxers

Not everyone wants the vaccine. In fact, in the US, where anti-vaxx sentiments are especially prevalent and long established, around a fifth of adults “do not intend to get vaccinated and are ‘pretty certain’ more information will not change their mind,” according to recent Pew research.

As Elena Conis’s fine book Vaccine Nation explains, these sentiments have a decades-old history; partially explained by some vaccine-related tragedies, such as the “Cutter Incident” in 1955, but largely due to the fractious world of American politics.

But the modern anti-vaxx movement does nevertheless have a more recent origin story: an infamous paper that Andrew Wakefield and others published in The Lancet in 1998, purporting to link autism with the MMR vaccine. That paper has since been discredited and struck from The Lancet’s pages, although it continues to provoke anti-vaxxers and has catalysed Wakefield’s weird brand of celebrity. This New York Times article is good on the whole sorry affair, as is Brian Deer’s recent book on the Doctor Who Fooled the World.  

Is it possible to convince those who are not convinced? Tortoise members and guests discussed the communication of the vaccine in a recent ThinkIn, which you can watch here.