Man being administered a vaccine

Professor Whitty: Government will have to determine acceptable risk

While addressing a health committee meeting, England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty has addressed what the long-term future may look like with Covid-19, amid the beginnings of a vaccination programme and ever-increasing research knowledge around the virus.

As a coronavirus, and given its global prevalence, the complete eradication of Covid-19 may prove difficult to achieve for a very long time.

However, it is hoped that more vaccines will soon join the Pfizer/BioNTech one in receiving approval for UK use from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and further boost the country’s vaccination capacity.

Then, ultimately, as Professor Whitty explained: “At a certain point, society, through political leaders, through elected ministers and through parliament, will say this level of risk is a level of risk that we think it is appropriate to tolerate.

“Just as we accept that in an average year 7,000 people die of flue, and in a bad flu year, 20,000 people die of flu. We accept that as that is what happens biologically.

“At a certain point you say, ‘actually, the risk is now low enough that we can largely do away with certainly the most onerous things that we have to deal with’.

“This will be a kind of gradual retreat from that, but it is a de-risking process rather than it’s just going to go away. We will de-risk hopefully to a very low level of risk, but I think it’s very unlikely we’ll get to zero level of risk.”

And that moment of accepted risk remains some way off yet, with the Chief Medical Officer reiterating the need for care and precautions throughout society, as well as continued commitment, investment and uptake of the UK vaccination programme.

This was particularly salient as the UK entered its winter period, when the NHS faces additional pressures and strain on resources even in a traditional year.

“I think very few people would recommend starting to really remove things during a high-risk period of the year, which the winter always will be for respiratory infections, until you have [vaccinated the most vulnerable].

“If you only were to vaccinate those 20 million people [identified as being vulnerable], the numbers are rough but for the sake of argument, you are still going to have a lot of people who are susceptible.

“That will not produce population immunity even if it prevents transmission. So, what that will do is substantially reduce mortality, significantly reduce the impact on the NHS, but it will still leave a lot of people who could become ill with this, and could in some cases have serious outcomes.”

Professor Whitty also raised to MPs that, at present, they were not aware as to whether re-vaccination would be necessary in the longer-term. He explained to MPs: “We know that these are very good vaccines to provide short to medium-term protection.

“We don’t [yet] know how long that lasts. It might last for a very long time, it might last for nine months. I think it’s more likely to be somewhere in between those two, in which case we may have to be in a position to re-vaccinate people, especially the most vulnerable.”

The MHRA also issued additional guidance this morning to people with a significant history of allergic reactions, who have been told not to get the vaccine for now. It comes after two people with such histories suffered adverse reactions during the first day of the vaccination drive, suffering an anaphylactoid reaction, which tends to involve a skin rash, breathlessness and sometimes a drop in blood pressure and is much milder than anaphylaxis.

The vaccine’s manufacturer echoed the precautionary measure, as well as reaffirming confidence in the vaccine’s general safety as they explained it has been “generally well tolerated with no serious safety concerns reported” during phase 3 trials.

It’s suspected this could be explained in that patients with a significant history of allergic reactions wouldn’t typically be recruited into phase 3 clinical trials.

Clinical trials for the Pfizer vaccine saw over 44,000 participants enrolled to date, over 42,000 of whom have received a second vaccination.

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