Sunday, February 07, 2021

Britain has a "Jenner moment" and gets away with it

If you remember your science history, British physician Edward Jenner revolutionized medicine at the end of the 18th century, when he inoculated an eight-year old boy and then directly exposed him to the smallpox virus. Thankfully for Jenner and the eight-year old boy (and for generations since), the boy survived, and the smallpox vaccine was born. But, in the process, Jenner became the poster boy for unethical medicine.

The British medical establishment came close to revisiting this unfortunate precedent recently when it decided, in its wisdom, that it was perfectly OK to wait as long as 12 weeks for the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, despite clear guidance from the vaccine manufacturers that the second dose should be administered three or four weeks after the first (depending on the particular vaccines).

There was some evidence (although not particularly strong evidence) that it is OK to give the second dose up to six weeks after the first, but no evidence that it was safe to wait any longer than that. The Brits, however, decided to throw caution to the wind and wait 12 weeks by default, and their percentage of population vaccinated looks appropriately rosy as a result. But this was sheer guesswork and not supported by science.

Well, as it turns out, the figures seem to be indicating that, for the AstraZeneca vaccine at least, which is the most commonly administered COVID vaccine in the UK, those who received a second dose 12 weeks after the first are actually even better-protected than those who recieved a second dose up to six weeks later. So, more by luck than judgement, the British health authorities have dodged a bullet and happened on an important virus management finding. It should be noted that there is no such finding (as yet) concerning delaying the second doses of other vaccines like Pfizer or Moderna.

I imagine, though, that the British health officials concerned are breathing a ragged sigh of relief, rather than celebrating a major scientific breakthrough.

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