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Voicing a vaccine

11 Nov 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Voicing a vaccine

With news of a possible Covid vaccine sweeping the front-pages, Ray Snoddy urges the media to consider the wider picture and use its influence for good

Was there ever such a press release as that released by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Biontech this week?

The victory “for science and humanity” roared around the world, and understandably the media was instantly swept up in the general euphoria that a vaccine had been produced that was 90% effective against the coronavirus.

Even sober newspapers such as The Times emphasised the fact that the milestone heralded the return of “normal life by the spring” while the Daily Mail saw it as “One small jab for  man…”

Stock markets boomed and had their best day since Covid-19, partly helped by the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, even though President Trump has still to be extracted from the White House.

There were of course winners and losers.

The share price of those who have suffered most from the pandemic such as events businesses were elevated while the big virus winners such as online delivery groups were cast down.

Economic forecasters are already hard at work predicting that the economy could recover by the summer and that GDP could be back to its pre-Covid levels by 2022 - a year earlier than previously expected.

What on earth is not to like about such a spectacular good news story? There was, for liberals, the additional happy note that the doctors responsible for the breakthrough are both the children of Turkish migrants to Germany. A great day for maligned migrants.

Except, except, perhaps that there is a danger that the reservations, the small print on the deal at the bottom of the page, will get overlooked amid the excitement.

Dr Richard Horton, publisher of The Lancet, may have been a tad curmudgeonly, and more than a little self-interested, when he sniffed that the scientific breakthrough should have been submitted to a peer-reviewed publication like his one, rather than being announced via a press release.

Anthony Costello, former director of the World Health Organisation, quietly expressed caution about the Pfizer trial.

The completion of enrolment and vaccinations was mid-September so the data released was after just six weeks and that it was not accepted practice to release data so early.

“If the antibody response is short-lived so might protection,” Costello warned.

Apart from the length of the protection period, other potential problems highlighted by scientists and science correspondents of papers like The Guardian include: the fact the tests relate to those seriously ill with Covid and therefore might not work so well in the asymptomatic and the question of whether or not it stops transmission.

There is then the logistical nightmare of getting a vaccine, which has to be stored at -70-degrees, delivered to tens of millions of people in a country, which has already produced the “world-beating” test and trace system.

All such reservations have been covered by the media but the impact has been largely swept away by the overwhelming good news story.

It is such a get out of jail card for politicians who have mishandled the pandemic and the national newspapers, which have merrily campaigned for the economy to take priority over lives and against tough measures to try to control the exponential growth of the virus.

Newspapers and the media in general are often accused of being doom mongers and indeed they are in the disaster business: The worse the crisis, the better the story.

Once upon a time, a newspaper was launched in Detroit that published only good news. It didn’t last very long.

Current vaccine developments suggest that the media also has to give more thought to how it handles something that appears unproblematical – really, really good news.

As we have seen already with encouragement to go and fill the restaurants and enjoy cut-price deals (one of the probable sources of the second Covid wave), there is such a thing as premature good news.

The happy headlines can undermine discipline and release the downward pressure when actually the danger is at its most extreme.

Some people don’t need much encouragement to start behaving irresponsibly.

The Pfizer vaccine euphoria could not help eclipsing other less hopeful news. In the UK, the latest 24-hour death toll, at 532 was the highest since mid-May and although that may represent the situation from a few weeks ago, the number of new cases also rose by a scary 20,412.

In the U.S, the cases are now running at 390,500 a day with more than 240,000 deaths - quite a challenge for President Biden once the spurious legal challenges to the election fall away.

Then there will be the next media battle and one that will mainly be fought out across social media.

If, as we all hope, there will soon be a number of safe and effective vaccines against Covid-19, they will only work if they are taken. That means the anti-vaxxers have to be suppressed.

There is far too much at stake for both science and humanity for their views to spread exponentially on Facebook and Google.

Here, the established media have an important role to play and the BBC must not think about displaying the tiniest shred of impartiality to near criminal madness in the face of science, facts and reason.

The Daily Mail has already done its bit with a poll showing that three in four Britons would take the vaccine, including nine out of ten of the elderly. That of course means that more than 16 million might not be willing to be vaccinated so there is persuasion still to be done by the media.

Rather bizarrely, the Mail also suggests that Prime Minister Boris Johnson should be the first one to take the virus.

Assume all of this goes well and the economy does recover by the summer then it really is good news for the media, marketing and advertising industries.

Companies which want to restore their businesses to pre-Covid levels should start planning their advertising campaigns and spending their money around now.

There are no prizes for being last in this race, whether the turnaround happens this side of Christmas or not. That is a degree of good news we can all cope with.

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