Picture: AFP/JOHANNES EISELE
Picture: AFP/JOHANNES EISELE

As health experts keep reminding us, life will not return to anything resembling pre-pandemic normal until there is an effective and widely available coronavirus vaccine. And, as they also keep reminding us, it will take at least a year to do the testing and clinical trials necessary to ensure a vaccine candidate is safe for mass production.

So it’s more than a little unsettling that President Donald Trump’s effort to expedite a vaccine for Covid-19 has a shortened timeline, one that seems suspiciously connected to the political calendar rather than sound science.

As its name implies, Operation Warp Speed aims not just to have a viable vaccine candidate by the end of the year, but to have 300-million doses ready for the American public by January through a joint effort of government and the pharmaceutical industry. It’s an aspirational deadline, to be sure, but one that suggests shortcuts to the usual scientific standards.

History is filled with tales of slapdash efforts that had disastrous results. The one relevant to this moment is the terrible mishap that occurred in the rush to stop a polio outbreak in the 1940s and ’50s that was killing thousands of Americans, many of them children, and paralysing many others.

After a year of clinical trials, a vaccine was licensed to six companies to manufacture quickly to meet the demand of a desperately worried public. But some of the batches made by California-based Cutter Laboratories failed to deactivate the live virus and ended up causing 40,000 polio infections, killing 10 children and leaving dozens more paralysed. The incident led to better government oversight of vaccine production, but it’s also a cautionary tale about cutting regulatory corners.

Typically it takes years, not months, to complete the three phases of clinical trials that take place before a vaccine can be marketed. It’s not bad idea to marshal the full force of government and military to fast-track development of a vaccine and give it regulatory priority. But though this is a race of sorts, it’s not one that will be won with speed alone. /Los Angeles, May 19