Now we’ve found the first COVID-19 vaccine, let’s keep calm and not return to the past
Pfizer’s announcement that its vaccine developed with the German biotechnology company BioNTech is effective in 90% of cases in preventing Covid-19 has triggered euphoria on the stock markets, sending its share value up by 9%, as well as benefitting companies related to tourism and travel, such as airlines and hotels, while hitting players associated with our habits during lockdown like Zoom, Amazon, Peloton or Netflix.
The first logical response to the news is to congratulate ourselves for the success of science and what the future may bring. But before we crack open the champagne, it is important to understand that this is an mRNA vaccine, which only requires obtaining the genetic code of the pathogen instead of having to wait and painfully culture progressively weakened strains of the virus, and that it is a two-phase serum that has not yet been approved by the FDA. At the moment, we only have the results of clinical trials on 43,998 people: reasons to be cheerful, albeit cautiously.
In addition to obtaining the corresponding approval from the health authorities around the world, the vaccine poses a few important challenges: first of all, major logistical problems due not only to the need to keeping the vaccine at extremely low temperatures, but also to the fact that it is a two-dose vaccine that must be distributed worldwide, its administration must be supervised, and the inevitable skepticism of the anti-vaxxers (who could become natural reservoirs of the virus) must be overcome. Even assuming that the results of the clinical trials can be extrapolated to the wider population, it will still take a long time to bring the pandemic under control, and that for a long time to come once it is under control, we are still talking about a long time during which the disease will remain endemic, either because there will be areas in the world where the vaccines will take longer to reach, because some people will refuse to be inoculated or because any immunity gained will not necessarily be permanent.
It would be naive in the extreme to think that once the vaccine is available, life will return to normal. More importantly, it would be criminal not to take the opportunity to adopt many of the practices we have become used to under lockdown. To think of returning en masse to the office when it has been shown that we can work perfectly well from home makes no sense. Similarly, just because we might soon be able to travel freely does not mean that we should all start flying again. And of course it would be a huge mistake to allow our cities to return to the days of gridlock and filthy air. Are we all seriously going to stop using Zoom, watching Netflix or shopping on Amazon? Of course not. It would make no sense at all.
The same goes for the travel sector: just because the share value of cruise companies or airlines enjoy a good day because a vaccine may be closer doesn’t mean they have a right to return to how they operated pre-pandemic. Establishing tougher controls on their activity, forcing them to adopt more sustainable practices, and eliminating subsidies for the fossil fuels they use is critical if we are not simply to advance full speed ahead into the next catastrophe.
Most governments around the world have shown themselves unable to deal with the pandemic, and obviously have little idea how to address the challenges we faced before, such as doing something about the climate emergency. In short, we must resist the temptation to simply slide back to the same normality that got us into so much trouble in the first place. It would be a historical mistake to do so. But to be perfectly honest, this is what the market seems to be predicting… and I’m already beginning to think that’s exactly what’s going to happen.