Vaccine breakthrough takes our eye off the ball

Embed from Getty Images

Forgive me if I seem the pre-Christmas Scrooge, but I can’t get as excited as everyone else at the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that has sent share prices rocketing (or falling) and a member of Sage saying we’ll be back to normal by the spring. I feel we are in danger of taking our eye off the ball.

The tendency when any of us are faced with a big problem is to see if we can solve it with minimum effort. It’s understandable; our lives are fairly full, so problems are irritants. But sometimes a problem requires a structural rethink, demanding root and branch reform rather than just tinkering with a failing element of the whole.

Issues like Covid-19 and climate change are problems that demand root and branch reform of the way the world does business, yet we are treating them like irritants. With climate change, we know our lifestyles are warming the planet to dangerous levels, yet we cling to the hope that some technology – like electric cars or planes running on biofuels – can be invented to stop us having to confront how we live and allow us to go back with a clear conscience to the life we know.

It’s the same with Covid. Although we don’t know for certain what caused it, the most likely explanation is our breaking down the barriers between the human and animal realms, to the point where bats, pangolins and perhaps even mink mingle with humans and cause a highly contagious killer virus. We need to look at our global lifestyle and re-establish that barrier, among other things through eating less meat and leaving forests intact – measures that will also help in the fight against climate change.

Yet instead, we hope for the magic wand of technology in the form of a vaccine. To me, it has long felt like lazy journalism or lazy politics to throw in the half-sentence “until we have a vaccine” to any thought about the coronavirus. It’s as if we don’t want to face up to the need to address the fundamental failings in our modus vivendi, and that can be dangerous.

The hope that a vaccine will conquer Covid has already led us to a frightening development: demonising those who question vaccination. Anyone who raises legitimate questions – and there are plenty of questions – risks being lumped into a category increasingly called ‘Anti-Vaxxers’, who in turn are lumped in with the conspiracy theorists. This probably stems from the scare stories put about by Andrew Wakefield with his alleged link between MMR and autism; the link was totally discredited (as was Wakefield) but still caused enough alarm to reduce MMR vaccination rates. That was worrying, but to use that as a reason to dismiss rational questioning of vaccines and vaccination is Orwellian in its stunting of proper thought and debate (and illiberal).

This is not the forum to go into why certain questions about vaccination are legitimate, and what questions must still be asked before any Covid vaccine should be considered acceptable. But what frightens me about the disproportionate enthusiasm for this week’s Pfizer-BioNTech announcement is that it plays into the popular myth that the scientists will wave their magic wand and we don’t need to address fundamental issues about the way we live after all.

Our response to the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should be to welcome it as a potential tool with which to fight off the coronavirus, but – for a variety of reasons – not  see it as something that can awaken us from the Covid nightmare so we can pretend it never happened. The two biggest things we can do is to recognise that there is no going back to the old normal, and that the fight against climate change is heavily interlinked with the fight against Covid-19.

And we do well to remember that this week’s announcement was not from a peer-reviewed medical journal but from a corporate press release. Yet even when a peer-reviewed journal does approve a coronavirus vaccine, we must still keep our eyes on the bigger ball we should be playing, not the illusory ball that will tinker round the edges but not solve our fundamental problem.

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

Read more by or more about or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Ianto Stevens 12th Nov '20 - 5:35pm

    Hi Chris. Always agree first. Only rarely have vaccines been magic bullets (Edward Jenner was exceptionally lucky with cowpox/small pox. It probably won’t all be plain sailing by Easter.
    Now the disagreement. I was born in India in 1945 and raised in a rural environment. My career has been in Biology and I was mad about wildlife as a child. I slept with a flying fox (kind of large fruit-bat) on the pole of my mosquito net. All my father’s parishioners had chickens and goats in the room in which they both ate and slept. I used to help with the weekly task of spreading a thin layer of cow-dung slurry on their floors once a week. (Always done with with the palm of the hand to give that smooth finish.) I did catch malaria, measles, trachoma, round and tape worms and TB.

    I give this history because it shows that there is nothing in the modern world that is new about intimate contact with wildlife and domestic animals. On the contrary, such intimate contact with animals has become rare. It had almost disappeared when I returned to India age 60.

    Pandemics have occurred several times in Human history. Like the flue and HIV viruses, most probably originated in animals and the problem will get less if most birds and mammals become extinct. I am disturbed by the attempt to lump pandemics with climate change. Loss of biodiversity and climate change are two linked issues much more serious and threatening than the covid19 pandemic and not closely linked to it.

    A virus jumping species in a food market started it off. Crowded urban conditions, rapid mass transport over long distances and poor public health systems produced the pandemic. We had better hope that several of the vaccines about to take centre stage work well. They certainly won’t if antivac sentiments are given lots of oxygen in the media, as they were on radio 4 today (Thursday 12th), and as Chris’s post has just done. The alternative is the sort of lockdown only possible in a very illiberal society.

  • Justin Towers 12th Nov '20 - 6:35pm

    Hi Chris, I haven’t seen many people on the same pitch as you never mind playing having eyes on the same ball.
    The vast majority of the world’s ‘western capatalist’ population want very much to return to normal. Strangely this includes many of generation Z who quickly turn away from demanding a new normal on realising the impact that any new normal will have on their current lifestyle.
    Consequently the world will snap back to life as normal, with ongoing brave, but ultimately empty statements about the need to move to a new way of living. Generation AA is going to be furious with the lack of follow through from the millennials.

  • I have to disagree with Chris Bowers on globalism as it is actually the case that foreign travel and migration have strengthened people’s immune systems by exposing us to a wider range of pathogens. This means pandemics will generally have less of an impact than the 1918 so called “Spanish Flu” pandemic when there was less immunity in the population.

  • Rob Parsons 12th Nov '20 - 9:21pm

    ‘Marco – can you cite evidence for that?

  • @Rob Parsons

    Yes see here:

    “ However, Oxford University Professor Sunetra Gupta points out that the same travel also meant that “we had all these other coronaviruses circulating”. That has built up global resistance to the new pathogen, making it far less deadly than 1918 influenza virus.”

  • OK, so a professor has said it, but I would still like to see the evidence behind it. Sometimes professors say things that don’t add up. I don’t think you can just jump from “we all travel more” to “therefore we all have more protection against viruses” without showing the intervening steps.

    Travelling about a lot hasn’t helped us avoid AIDS. In fact it made it spread. We aren’t any more immune to malaria than we were a hundred years ago.

    And, as for the comparison with the flu, I suspect that the main reason this is a lot less deadly is that both public health and healthcare throughout the world are immeasurably better than they were a hundred years ago, not that we travelled less in those days.

  • Peter Martin 13th Nov '20 - 5:22am

    @ Marco @ Rob,

    The same Oxford University Professor Sunetra Gupta told us in May that Covid was “on its way out of the UK”

    Maybe its flight got cancelled?

  • Peter Martin 13th Nov '20 - 5:46am

    “…..the illusory ball that will tinker round the edges but not solve our fundamental problem.”

    There probably isn’t such a solution. Even if we reverted to a 19th century lifestyle the same problem could reoccur. There is an interesting new theory (see link below) that we’ve been through all this before except we didn’t know what we were up against at the time.

    Flu, in the UK, has largely been defeated by vaccines. I personally haven’t had flu for years. This does mean that we’ll have many more old people who are alive and well a lot longer than they used to be. But, if we have something like Covid-19 come along that’s going to change all that.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Nov '20 - 8:19am

    The Times reported on executive share sales on 12/11/2020.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Nov '20 - 8:22am

    Ianto Stevens 12th Nov ’20 – 5:35pm

  • Richard Underhill 13th Nov '20 - 8:23am

    Ianto Stevens 12th Nov ’20 – 5:35pm
    Please avoid mink in Denmark

  • David Garlick 13th Nov '20 - 10:48am

    Good stimulating piece. The way forward is not to go back to the 19thC or earlier but to learn from the mistakes we are making and go forward from there. That does require us to look backwrads to learn though.
    We are currently on course to wipe ourselves out, at worst, or cause massive problems like Covid 19, biodiversity loss et al on an ever increasing spiral downwards. Lets learn lessons and accept that ‘going back to the old normal’ is a fatally flawed option.

  • Duncan Greenland 13th Nov '20 - 10:53am

    Would be helpful if Chris Bowers could write a further LDV article explaining what he thinks are the questions that might be raised as to the wisdom of mass vaccination ?

  • Rob Parsons – the line that Globalism/immigration is responsible for HIV/AIDS is straight out of the Tory right/UKIP/Farage playbook. We should challenge myths and taboos some of which have parallels with the reaction to COVID.

    Peter Martin – As far as I am aware Oxford is quite a good University. Are you saying that epidemiology students at Oxford are being taught a load of nonsense? In reality they will be receiving a world class education that is assessed internally and externally.

    Nothing Professor Gupta has said has been proven to be wrong. She said that you can go in and out of herd immunity in line with seasonal effects which is possibly what we are currently seeing.

    Also your comments about flu are bizarre as the vaccine is only 40-60% effective depending on the strain in circulation. Flu still kills people often by causing pneumonia.

  • Peter Martin 13th Nov '20 - 7:31pm

    @ Marco,

    Prof Gupta said in May that “the coronavirus pandemic is ‘on its way out’ of Britain after infecting as much as half the population.” At the time it would have been more like 5%. It doesn’t really matter who pays her salary. It doesn’t give her any immunity against being wrong. I suppose we are all used to Trump denying the blatantly obvious. It seems to be a skill others have also learnt.

    Yes flu vaccines could be better. But even 40% can make the difference between R being greater or less than 1. IMO everyone should be offered a free flu shot. The recipient is helping to protect others as well as themselves.

  • Ianto Stevens 14th Nov '20 - 9:12am

    I agree with Perter Martin. As far as I am aware, nobody has raised the question of whether there should be a charge for less vulnerable adults to have a covid vaccine, as they do for the flue vaccine. It would be in everyone’s interests to ensure that vaccines which protect against any and all serious infections are free to all across the globe.

    A difficult issue for me, and probably for many liberals with a small l, is ‘should an institution such as a university or a swimming club be permitted to deny membership to people who refuse to show they have been vaccinated. This issue was/is especially relevant for MMR. I feel very conflicted about this.

  • Most people won’t need a COVID vaccine. It will be enough for people in higher risk groups to have it. As far as I am aware societies have only ever vaccinated people who are at risks as individuals not to protect other people which is not the function of a vaccine.

  • Peter Martin – she said that the pandemic was on its way out not that COVID was on its way out. In other words that Covid has been moving from pandemic state to endemic state where it is still around but rises and falls in line with seasonal effects.

  • Peter Martin 15th Nov '20 - 1:30am

    @ Marco,

    You can find her quoted as saying either or both. I’m not sure how it makes a difference. Her arithmetic is also suspect. Prof Gupta claims the Infection Fatality Rate is:

    “definitely less than one in 1000 and probably closer to one in 10,000”

    So this would mean an upper limit for UK deaths, assuming everyone will be exposed of between 65,000 and 6500.

    As the death toll is currently in excess of 50,000 her ‘probable’ lower figure is clearly nonsense. Her ‘definite’ figure doesn’t make any sense either. This would mean that 77% of the population had already been exposed. More nonsense.

  • Helen Dudden 15th Nov '20 - 8:34am

    I understand that there is not a clear line between a Covid only death, and a death where the virus was present. I personally feel, the virus has been around longer.
    Hygiene, is important and I think that has been one failure as we move forward. Poor animal husbandry is a factor, I’m against the transport of live livestock. Most certainly cruel, and stressful to the livestock. Massive chicken warehouses is another. That applies to pigs and cattle.
    There is a real need to start at source.
    I personally, do not agree with the new vaccine and the side effects should be considered in those with other conditions. I’ve been asked previously, if I’m well before a flu vaccination. In some I feel it could cause further problems.
    It was reported that positive cases of Covid were returned to care homes.
    The winter sickness bug does close hospital wards in the winter.
    University’s have high figures of transmission in some area’s. A factor could be the difficulty to distance and hygiene.
    There is little done at present for conditions other than Covid, cancer patients as an example, are being put at risk.
    The interest in the running of number 10 seems to be too of the most reported items. Spending, by the government gets even higher.
    Several months ago, I watched an interview with a former Chief Rabbi and he was commenting that Politics had become too Political.
    My concern grows on mental health in many, how long can we simply not have a health that is useable?

  • Peter Martin 16th Nov '20 - 1:32pm

    @ Marco,

    “As far as I am aware societies have only ever vaccinated people who are at risks as individuals not to protect other people which is not the function of a vaccine.”

    Smallpox was eradicated by targetting the last remaining areas of where smallpox had been reported. The strategy went much further than the protection of the individuals concerned. Polio is close to being eliminated by the same approach.

    Even where the global elimination of a particular virus is not possible, the effects of mass vaccination is a key consideration from a public health perspective. Local eradication is still an achievable target. Typically we need an uptake of around 80% for vaccines like MMR to have the desired effect. So a few anti-vaxxers can be tolerated. Their children are unlikely to become infected if everyone else’s children are vaccinated. They get a free ride. However, if a few becomes too many there is an obvious problem.

    “It will be enough for people in higher risk groups to have it.

    It won’t. A vaccine will probably be given to older people and front line health workers first. The former are at risk themsleves. The latter are at greater risk of passing it on to patients. This needs to be followed up by vaccinating as many of the general population as possible. Both to protect the individuals themselves and minimise the spread of the virus. It’s not possible to separate these two considerations.

    Without a vaccine we’ll be in the same position as the 1920s generation who had no other choice than to let Spanish flu work its way throughout population.

  • @ Marco “As far as I am aware societies have only ever vaccinated people who are at risks as individuals not to protect other people which is not the function of a vaccine”.

    Oh dear, Marco. You really do need to brush up on your history and what Liberal Governments have done in the past :

    “Many of the most important medical developments and practices of the last century have their origins in the First World War. Vaccines were first used on a major scale during the war and most British servicemen sent abroad were vaccinated against typhoid. As a result, deaths from the disease were significantly reduced.

    For the British Army this was due to one not well known event, when Sir William Osler, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, persuaded senior army officers about the necessity of vaccinating troops against typhoid, despite a conscientious objector law preventing compulsory vaccination backed by the powerful Anti-Vaccination League. Osler argued that the “army marched on its brain” and that vaccination against typhoid would reduce mortality by half. In the event, Osler’s arguments won the day and soon 97 percent of the troops were being vaccinated. It is worth pointing out that by 1911, vaccination against typhoid was mandatory for American troops, and one of the reasons for the low mortality from disease in the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War was that the Japanese vaccinated all their troops against typhoid. By 1914 there were also vaccines against cholera, anthrax, rabies, typhoid, and plague, but they appear to have been used randomly without any obvious strategic plan.

    Source: Imperial War Museum; “The First World War Disease the Only Victor,” Lecture by Professor Francis Cox, Gresham College

  • Peter Martin and David Raw

    Interesting though your history lesson was Mr Raw I do stand by what I said although perhaps it was not correct to say that “most” people won’t need a Covid vaccine but I certainly don’t think everyone or even the majority of people will need to get one.

    Not only it is a huge logistical challenge to vaccinate an entire adult population (it was a huge challenge with Polio if you read up on it but it may well be unnecessary as a combination of the vulnerable population being vaccinated and natural immunity among the healthy might keep the virus at bay.

    Smallpox is one of the only only diseases ever to be eradicated. It is unrealistic and unnecessary to eradicate Covid. It is from the family of corona viruses none of which have been eradicated and influenza has not been eradicated either. Nobody thinks it would be possible to do so. Natural immunity + vaccinations will be enough.

  • @ Marco Not a history lesson, Marco. Simply pointing out what has been the practice in the UK – which you don’t seem to be aware of – and has been for well over a century.

  • Chris Bowers 17th Nov '20 - 10:32am

    Thank you to everyone who has commented on my post. It was an unusual one, in that it was slightly more detached from politics, though not detached from the moral and practical issues we have to deal with in our lives.
    I was sad to see at least one responder accusing me of spreading ‘antivac sentiments’. I am no anti-vaxxer, I recognise the role for carefully researched, carefully tested and carefully applied vaccines – I’m just saying we should be cautious about the process and the possible outcomes. I’m also a liberal, and believe in sufficient freedom of speech that all meaningful issues of public importance should be able to be discussed freely and openly.
    Reduced to basics, vaccination involves injecting traces of a disease into a healthy body in order to trick the body into thinking it has had the illness and thus develop antibodies to it. And it clearly works, as death rates from various illnesses have come down over recent decades, in some cases to the point of near-elimination. (The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doesn’t quite work this way – it injects genetic codes into the body to prompt the development of antibodies.) But because both approaches tamper with the body’s natural immunity, it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether it has any other unintended effects, and this is why vaccines take so long to be approved (often up to 10 years). Until that question is answered, caution about a vaccine is legitimate, and any scepticism about a vaccine that appears to be ‘ready’ less than a year since we knew the virus it fights even existed has to be at least partially justified, not banished to the realms of conspiracy theories.
    This is why the delight and jubilation that resulted from the announcement of interim results is premature (if understandable), and that was the point of my post.
    I’m very happy for people to disagree with me, but the liberal position has to be that the issue is up for discussion. Labour is now calling for a law to erase anti-vaxxer comments from social media. Some of the wilder comments may deserve that, but we must not put this issue out of the realm of discussion or we take a massive step towards a ‘the state knows best’ society.

  • @Chris Bowers

    I agree with what you say about vaccines. It is right to be cautious about a vaccine produced so quickly, it doesn’t make you an anti-vaxxer. There were a number of side effects from the swine flu vaccine that were serious in a small number of cases.

    Labours proposals are chillling and show them reverting to their authoritarian ways. Criminalising anti vaccine material runs the risk of censoring genuine factual reporting and discussion.

    Talk of mandatory vaccinations in Denmark is also very disturbing.

    Another point made by Ed Davey was referred to on Caron Lindsays post:

    Which is that vaccines should be available worldwide. If the entire adult population in wealthy western countries was given the vaccine would this increase prices/decrease availability in the developing world?

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Michael BG
    Roland, As I have already stated there should be a work allowance for everyone - an amount they receive before they lose any benefit. I am thinking of over ...
  • Katharine Pindar
    William Beveridge didn't in the 1940s know anything about payouts being clawed back by taper rates. He simply wanted a system by which everyone, working or not,...
  • Michael BG
    Peter Davies, You didn’t say what amount of Local Housing Allowance your single person with two children is getting. For Inner South West London a category...
  • Steve Trevethan
    Thank you....
  • Andrew Melmoth
    @Fiona No-one has put forward a credible reason why an independent Scotland wouldn't be able to join the EU. But even if there was some impediment there is no ...