It’s becoming clear that a Covid19 vaccine is not going to be the silver bullet as widely advertised. I have been asking for months, why would we expect a vaccine to be 100% effective? Flu and other vaccines are well understood as being less than 100%. On Wednesday Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during his testimony before a Senate subcommittee that wearing face masks may be more effective at protecting against COVID-19 than a vaccine.
I note the WHO recommends that successful vaccines should show an estimated risk reduction of at least one-half, with sufficient precision to conclude that the true vaccine efficacy is greater than 30%. This means that the 95% Confidence Interval for the trial result should exclude efficacy less than 30%. This is a minimum baseline. They go on to say a vaccine that has 50% efficacy could appreciably reduce incidence of COVID-19 in vaccinated individuals, and might provide useful herd immunity. Hence, although efficacy far greater than 50% would be better, efficacy of about 50% would represent substantial progress.
We can observe that right across Europe countries are struggling to contain the virus. While deaths and hospitalizations are thankfully lower, due to better treatments and understanding of the condition, case numbers everywhere are once again on an upward, exponential curve. And countries are trying to introduce a complexity of restrictions, often varying by geography to a public that are weary and angry. It looks like a slippery slope with a bad ending to me.
I also note that in the UK Daniel Lawson, senior lecturer in statistical sciences at Bristol University, said there was clear evidence that the surge was being “driven by infection in people aged 17 to 34”. The threat posed by young people failing to distance was spotted early by public health officials, with Preston city council the first to launch a “don’t kill Granny” campaign more than a month ago. However, the message appears not to have got through. Many of the infected young are asymptomatic and are increasingly passing the virus to elderly and vulnerable relatives. Some people have clearly become tired of following the rules. Here in Ireland we can see the same trend, just today I see the median age of cases in the past 14 days is 33 with 20% of cases between the ages of 15 and 24.
Here’s just two stories that summarize the problem. The other day as I walked from the car park in to the village at lunchtime, I could see clearly into the pub back yard. There were some 6 guys, not youngsters, all drinking beer, laughing and joshing. No distancing, no masks. Another guy joins them and they all hi five each other and bunch up close to let the newcomer in. The same day I walked down the road just as the schoolchildren were returning after lunch. There were many hundreds of youngsters, often five abreast, causing other pedestrians to scatter. No sense of social distancing, and not one mask to be seen anywhere. Speaking to a teacher later she said, it’s all nonsense. We enforce social distancing and mask wearing in school, but in the playground or outside the school there’s no compliance at all.
All this makes me ponder on Robert Redfield’s comment on the importance of masks. That they are more important than getting a vaccine, and bearing in mind the limited efficacy of vaccines we will be living with the virus for years. So why don’t we trigger some real innovation in masks and other protective devices. Why doesn’t the BT Young Scientist or a similar organizations hold competitions for innovative ideas in this area. Particularly those that will be attractive to younger people. Why not connect masks to mobile devices to allow dynamic messaging on the front of the mask. Or in-mask microphone allowing hands free speech, or amplification of the voice through the device. Could we see such amplification enabling singing while wearing a mask? Or allowing drinking through a straw. But why stay with the centuries old mask. Consider variants such as wrap around visors with heads up displays, wraparound sound, in-visor (replaceable) air filtering for both viruses and pollution, in-mask or visor language translation. Oh, and also make them comfortable to wear for protracted periods. I could go on.
I have said before, we should never let a crisis go to waste. We should expect high levels of innovation during crisis periods. Clearly there has been and is ongoing massive innovation in the medical and public health spaces. But now we know Covid19 is not going away for probably years, it’s time to innovate in the personal technology space to both protect ourselves but also allow us to live our lives to the full.