The speed of science

13 November 2020

I have borrowed the title for this week’s blog from the Head of Vaccines Business Unit at Pfizer, Darius Hughes.

He used the term a couple of times at a meeting held by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

This event was due to discuss vaccines in general, but as it came the day after the announcement of significant progress for the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech, inevitably the focus shifted.

It was fascinating to hear about the procedure that the vaccine manufacturers are going through. Of course, every stage must be rigorously carried out, but because of the urgency the researchers are running stages concurrently where it is practical to do so.

Tempered optimism

The front pages of the newspapers were full of hope about the vaccine, the Daily Star inevitably managing to link this breakthrough with another famous product produced by the same manufacturer. I will leave you to use your imagination!

UK and Welsh Governments have been noticeably cautious in statements about the vaccine and sensibly so. There are still hurdles and safety procedures to overcome before the vaccine is authorised for use, as well as the practicalities of how to store the vaccine at the low temperatures required.

Yet, this is a moment for optimism, and with positive reports also emerging about the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine research, there is now a reason to believe that we are on the verge of the next chapter in our efforts to bring COVID-19 under control.

How will the vaccine be administered?

I appreciate that there is inevitably discussion about how the anticipated COVID-19 vaccine programme will be rolled out. In England, the scheme will be GP-led and RCGP Chair Professor Martin Marshall has said:

"General practice is experienced at delivering mass vaccination programmes, with positive results, but developing and delivering a brand-new programme at pace will be an enormous challenge. The workload and resource pressures that were facing general practice before the pandemic still exist - and they need to be addressed. GPs and our teams won’t be able to deliver this programme alone.

"We will need the support of other healthcare professionals in the community, and potentially from secondary care colleagues, such as those delivering outpatient services. More consultations are also being made in general practice than before the pandemic, we are preparing for usual winter pressures and delivering the expanded flu vaccination programme, so we also need clarity on what work we should stop doing in order to create capacity to deliver the Covid vaccination programme."

In Wales, we are awaiting an announcement following discussions between the General Practitioners Committee and Welsh Government.

As this is a contractual matter, the College is not directly involved in the negotiations.

Whether the Welsh approach is similar to, or different from, that in England, I hope that GPs in Wales will respond with the same measure of constructive support and practical planning that Martin has expressed in his response to the English announcement..

Reassuring patients and countering scepticism

A campaign aide to President-elect Biden commented while analysing the election that a conscious decision was made to turn-off Twitter.

It brings back thoughts of then Prime Minister David Cameron noting in 2015 that "Britain and Twitter are not the same thing".

I’ve nothing against the medium but it is healthy to have these periodic reminders that it is not a gauge of broader public opinion.

I mention this today, because I suspect we will see plenty of misleading comment about vaccines and their safety.

We must though remember that, on the whole, the UK is not a hotbed of anti-vaxxer sentiment and the best thing we can do to ensure a high uptake is to present the facts in a reasoned and clear way to our patients.

ABPI to launch new social media campaign #ValuingVaccines

In a campaign which was due to launch separately from the news of the COVID-19 vaccine, the ABPI has launched Valuing Vaccines.

The campaign aims to explain how vaccines are discovered, the industry’s role in creating them, the strict regulations that surround the process, and the success of vaccines in tackling diseases.

Some of the headlines remind us of the progress humanity has made thanks to vaccine research:

  • Thanks to vaccination, the last confirmed case of rubella in Wales was in 2005.
  • 20 million cases of measles have been prevented in the UK since the introduction of the measles vaccine.
  • Vaccines have eliminated polio, diphtheria and congenital rubella from the UK.
  • The first five years of the shingles vaccine programme has seen 49,000 fewer GP visits and 1800 fewer hospitalisations for shingles and its complications.

Support across four nations

I wanted to conclude this week’s update by drawing your attention to a letter to doctors (225 KB PDF) issued on behalf of all four governments in the UK, the General Medical Council and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

I think it does us all good to allow ourselves a moment to take stock. What we have all had to respond to this year can easily become overwhelming, but each one of us is an integral part of a bigger team and we are all there to support one another.


Post written by

Professor Peter Saul, Joint Chair of RCGP Wales

Professor Peter Saul qualified in 1985 and currently is a partner in Rhosllanerchrugog near Wrexham. He combines his work in the practice with his other professional passion of medical education, in the role of Associate Postgraduate Dean in the Wales Deanery. He also works one session a week running the Paediatric Allergy Clinic at Chester Hospital.

Peter has been an active member of his local RCGP faculty, serving as Chair and as Treasurer. He is also actively involved with the media, with a medical column in the local newspaper and as a regular radio contributor.

For fun he rides a bike (his favourite being his red Brompton), and when in need of a loftier perspective he flies his part owned light aircraft from Welshpool Airport. He lives on a smallholding and has three grown up children, one of whom is a junior doctor in London.

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