We’ve had a flurry of Good News announcements from developers of Covid vaccine candidates. The fact that one announcement has provoked more highlights how competitive the race is.
At the same time, we hear that governments are going to come down hard on antivax (is that how you spell it? – I don’t want to google). With drastic potential penalties on platforms, it’s inevitably going to be enforced as one of those taboos that may be used to shut down not just nutjob conspiracy theories but also legitimate discussion. That (always) bothers me.
I’m not anti-vaccination myself. I’ve had the flu jab for two or three years, and would have had it this year if Stuttley’s ultra-centralised crony-driven Soviet-lookalike system hadn’t proved itself incapable of delivering it. Yes, they’re going to roll out this massive Covid programme, but they can’t even manage a routine flu jab for those deemed vulnerable by the NHS!
In terms of the covid candidates, I have no doubt whatsoever that their inventors are working in good faith in the hope of protecting us – the people – from covid. There’s no sinister agenda of mind-control or anything like that. Where there’s a risk it’s cockup – the vaccination does something unintended – not conspiracy. On the basis that that risk will be lower than the risk of covid, I shall get it if offered.
Sadly that’s not the whole story. The risk is that under immense commercial pressure, corners get cut. Or – worse – adverse information is suppressed, and tests that raise red flags get redesigned to suppress it. No fewer than two news stories this week remind us of the real-life risks of suppressing adverse information: the Boeing 737 max being re-licenced after its disastrous history, and the Grenfell tower inquiry’s evidence of how highly flammable material was used in full knowledge of the danger.
The vaccine candidates are coming up for regulatory approval. Which begs a number of questions:
- To what extent is regulatory approval a rubber-stamp exercise?
- I understand the EU single market serves to save producers of regulated products (like medicines) a lot of per-country red tape. How far does EU approval go towards making a vaccine automatically legal/available in member countries?
- Does anyone have a clue whether and how brexit affects this?
- Do we have mutual recognition – or something approaching it – of medicines with any other countries, such as the US?
- Is there jurisdiction-shopping by pharma companies seeking regulatory approval for a drug? If so, what jurisdictions are commonly favoured?
All in all, I’d have the greatest confidence in a vaccine developed in a politically-unloved country. With a Russian or Chinese candidate, I’d have that little bit more confidence that it hadn’t got through an EU or UK regulator on-the-nod at some level. Though that expectation is based on ignorance of the system: the argument for it is that humans are involved and will always come under pressures that may differ for drugs of different origins.
Who knows what the suppression of anti-vax disinformation will take with it? One of the first casualties will be any would-be whistleblower on adverse side-effects. Like flammable cladding, or flight control that causes crashes. Of course the counterargument to that is that most of us (certainly including me, and more importantly those tasked with the censorship) would stand little if any chance of telling whistleblowing from a conspiracy theory. But it’s no less concerning for that.