A vaccine which comes in an ice cube

A medical expert weighs in on the covid vaccine but warns that while this is a positive step, precautions will not disappear overnight

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Dr Charles Mallia Azzopardi- Head Infectious diseases Unit said that the international banking community has short-circuited the bureaucracy needed to finance the production o the COvis-19vaccine. Following the recent announcement that Pfizer is nearing mass-production of the vaccine, Fr Joe Borg interviewed Dr Mallia Azzopardi on What’s On Newsbook on 103 Malta’s Heart.

How do you react to the news that the Pfizer vaccine will soon be available?

Dr Charles Mallia Azzopardi- Head Infectious diseases Unit said that there are about 6 vaccines which are at an advanced stage of testing and the recent news on one of the vaccines “is not just good news, it is excellent news”. This vaccine is very innovative in that it inoculates the genetic information of the virus into the human carrier. He said that so far, vaccines of all sorts either inoculated the dead form of the virus, or a liquidised version or the carapace of the virus. This time round it is the genetic information which is being used and the human defence mechanism reacts  better with this type of stimulus. “While this is the first time that this type of vaccine is being used, it bodes well for the future,” said Dr Mallia Azzopardi.

So, in simple terms: we are being injected in a ‘novel’ way to create antibodies to fight Covid-19. Will this be a one-time jab, or will it have to be taken regularly?

At this stage it is difficult to say and more studies need to be published both on effectivity and on the duration of that effectivity , said Dr Mallia Azzopardi. Current studies show that the vaccine is very effective and that the response of the body to the vaccine is robust and produces more antibodies than if one gets Covid-19 naturally said Dr Mallia Azzopardi. He explained that if one gets Covid-19, the body fights the virus and eventually produces antibodies to ‘kill’ the virus. The number of antibodies produced by the vaccine is far greater than the number of antibodies produced by Covid-19 so the resistance to the contagion will be greater for longer.

Will we have to take a booster shot?

Dr Mallia Azzopardi said that in the majority of the vaccines being produced for covid-19, a booster shot needs to be taken 21 days after the original inoculation. This means that the vaccine needs to be taken twice.

One of the drawbacks which may have been pointed out in the media is that for this vaccine to remain viable, it needs to be stored at very low temperatures, -70°C or thereabouts. Will this be a problem in Malta?

All vaccines, said Dr Mallia Azzopardi, require a cold chain, that is they need to be kept at very low temperatures from the minute they leave the production line to the point of inoculation. The Pfizer vaccine seems to need to be maintained at 70°C which, said Dr Mallia Azzopardi, is an ultra-low temperature. He added that it seems that the company has gone public saying that it is prepared to provide these freezers to transport the vaccine from the factory to the depository of the country of destination. Logistically, he said, this will help the receiving countries.

So, will the vaccine be an ice cube? Will we be injected with and ice cube?

Dr Mallia Azzopardi said that the vaccine itself will be encased in ice but will not, itself, be frozen. The vaccine will be thawed in specific process and then inoculated. He said that this ultra-low temperature is the way Pfizer developed their vaccine, adding that other companies are developing vaccines which do not need such low temperatures.

Is this the vaccine which we will be receiving in Malta?

The Eu, said Dr Mallia Azzopardi is negotiating with all the companies currently testing the covid vaccine. He said that this is a normal process, particularly since it gives the EU a safety net if one or more of the companies get negative results to the tests on their product. “The EU is not putting all its eggs in one basket,” said Dr Mallia Azzopardi. He said that it is very likely that the members states will have an assortment of vaccines to use, particularly since billions of vaccines will need to be produced.

Report have said that by the end of November the company will have all the permits to start producing on an industrial scale. How long will it take for the vaccine to start being administered to people?

Dr Mallia Azzopardi said that in the case of the Covid vaccine several short cuts have been taken in the bureaucratic and production processes but none which compromise safety. He stressed this point further adding “For a vaccine to be administered, three factors are needed: it must be proven to be effective, it must be proven to be safe and we must be certain that supply can meet demand”. On efficacy and safety, studies so far are positive said Dr Mallia Azzopardi, adding that longitudinal studies over the years will give further insights on these aspects.

One of the great stumbling blocks in the production of any vaccine is the huge financial outlay required to start production and to ensure that there is enough capacity to meet demand. “This is where the short-cuts happened,” said Dr Mallia Azzopardi. The banks and governments short-circuited the financing and bureaucratic aspects so that the companies could start production ‘without’ having the necessary funding beforehand explained Dr Mallia Azzopardi.

Does the vaccine mean that we can do without restrictions?

Dr Mallia Azzopardi said that the vaccine is an important step forward but there will be a lag time between when there are sufficient people inoculated and the vaccine starts to work. “There we have to be very careful and social distancing and sanitising and masks will have to be worn. Otherwise we will have big problems as other countries are having,” warned Dr Mallia Azzopardi.

Dr Mallia Azzopardi said that the final message is that the vaccine is a great positive step in conquering this pandemic. “We need to work together but I am optimistic that we shall manage,” concluded Dr Mallia Azzopardi.