UK's chief scientific adviser: Coronavirus will become endemic

Sir Patrick Vallance has almost $1m invested in a company producing a Covid vaccine, but still says it's wrong to rely on one.

Y Rabinovitz ,

Covid-19 vaccine (illustrative)
Covid-19 vaccine (illustrative)

The UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has poured cold water on the idea of a total cure for the novel coronavirus hovering somewhere on the horizon, telling senior government figures this week that, “It’s unlikely we will end up with a vaccine that completely stops infection. This is something we’re going to need to manage.”

Quoted in The Telegraph, Sir Patrick, who has been at the forefront of Britain’s struggle to contain the coronavirus since early spring, insisted further that the “notion of eliminating Covid is not right.” He pointed out that at the present stage of vaccine research, there is no evidence that any of the substances being tested can actually prevent infection; the most they have shown is that they can provoke an immune response. “We will know [if they can prevent infection] over the next few months,” he said. “And at that point, we’ll also have some clearer idea on the safety profile of these vaccines” being developed.

Nonetheless, he was adamant that relying on a vaccine to save the day was unrealistic and irresponsible. “It’s worth reflecting that there’s only one human disease that’s been truly eradicated, and that’s from the highly effective vaccine to smallpox,” he told MPs and members of the House of Lords. “It’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s likely this disease will circulate and be[come] endemic … but as management becomes better … this starts to look more like annual flu than anything else.”

Vallance’s comments are particularly significant considering his background – although he has a distinguished career in research behind him, he has also worked in drug development, and was the president of R&D at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) between 2012 and 2017. In fact, he still has a huge shareholding in GSK, estimated at around £600,000 ($777,000), and therefore a vested interest not just in the general success of the company, but also in its successful development and marketing of the Covid-19 vaccine it is currently developing in partnership with Sanofi. GSK’s share price rose by almost two percent after it announced the partnership, and it has already finalized deals with both the UK and the US governments to supply them with hundreds of millions of vaccine doses.

Vallance has consistently been unafraid to present what he sees as the unvarnished truth, while conceding that the science is always advancing and developing and that the amount of data available for analysis is still far from sufficient in order to make accurate predictions. Back in March, he was one of the most prominent figures in the UK calling for “some kind of herd immunity, so that more people are immune to this disease.” He estimated then that “about sixty percent” of the population would have to be infected to reach this goal, and freely admitted that the death toll could be considerable – “this is a nasty disease,” he said, making no attempt to paint a rosy picture.

However, his position is also tempered by the claim, backed up by research, that “an antibody response is likely in most people. It is likely to provide some form of immune protection … experience from other coronaviruses suggests that it may last for one, two, or three years.” He added that the vast majority of those who contracted the disease only suffered mild symptoms, or were entirely asymptomatic.

In a tacit nod to the limitations of science on impacting public policy, however, he admitted that, “Allowing many people to catch Covid to create widespread immunity was never [the government’s stated] aim and never could have been with a committee comprised of many doctors who have spent their lives dedicated to improving health.” Translated, one could apply the sentiments to any Western government: “We will pretend we can conquer this disease, because to admit we can’t would be professional suicide.”