The first documented successful vaccine was in 1796, the British doctor Edward Jenner could prove immunity to small pox using the relatively mild cowpox virus. Today’s English talking practice is about what we in the UK call, the jab.
Immunity to disease is a wonderful thing, and the traditional slow process of creating the medicines that help us fight disease has been something we just live with. But recently the world of medicine decided that slow is not acceptable, and for the first time in 224 years, we have invented alternative experimental approaches to providing immunity to disease. And the medical scientists have achieved it in record time.
Naturally rushing something to market that is so important and that has such an impact on people causes a lot of concern. There is only short-term data to analyse, we have not had time to study the long term impact, usually over many years, and this is quite a scary fact. We are being asked to
trust the system, but
trust is hard won and easily lost.
So today in this English lesson we just talk about what UK big pharma companies and government is telling people who live in the UK about the UK jab, who will get it, when and why and reported issues with the trial data used to prove that our jab will be safe.
Vaccine Medicine Immunity
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Well, the UK is supposed to come out of our latest ‘November lockdown’ on Thursday 2nd December, but we’ve now been told that we’re returning to the previous system of tiers, T-I-E-R-S – that really means ‘levels’. Except that it’s worse – because most of the country has now been put in the two higher tiers for the pandemic restrictions and they’ve made the rules stricter. So the effect is that we’re just swapping one sort of lockdown for another! So much of the news this week then has been about the progress of vaccine trails.
Vaccine, V-A-C-C-I-N-E – a vaccine is a substance that you take, usually into your arm, which protects you from disease. Most countries give children vaccinations for the major illnesses. So the vocabulary here – a ‘vaccine’ [or ‘vaccine’] is the substance that gives you immunity, safety from the illness. And if you talk about vaccination, V-A-C-C-I-N-A-T-I-O-N – that means the act of giving the vaccine, usually by mouth or as I say, injected into your arm. Informally, we just call it ‘a jab’, J-A-B. ‘Jab’ is also a motion you can make with your finger, if you point and push – ‘prod’ is another similar word. And a ‘jab in the arm’ is a vaccination. There’s also a verb ‘to vaccinate’. And do you know that the word ‘vaccine’ comes from the word in Latin for a cow, ‘vacca’ or ‘vacca’, V-A-C-C-A? That’s because the first successful vaccinations used ‘Cow Pox’ virus against the much more serious disease, smallpox.
So, vaccine news this week? AstraZeneca, their vaccine, made in association with the University of Oxford – well, great news! The trials have been successful – and a great advantage is that this vaccine can be stored in an ordinary fridge, unlike some of the other vaccines that need to be stored at extremely low temperatures. The esteemed magazine Science published this as a success story. It doesn’t need super low temperatures which other vaccines need – so distribution will be easier and will cost a lot less for the AstraZeneca vaccine.
It does need two doses – so that means you’ll have to have a ‘jab in the arm’ twice, two times. But that’s standard – most of the proposed vaccines do. And the AstraZeneca vaccine is made from a virus, which causes the common cold in chimpanzees, but they’ve changed it slightly to make it look to our immune system like it’s the coronavirus that we’re worried about. So it works like a traditional vaccine – our bodies produce an immune response to fight the virus. It’s a tried and tested method – most of us have had vaccinations and have faith in them when they...that they work like this, like they’re supposed to.
But news came this week that there are some problems with the AstraZeneca trial data. Well, actually it was two trials, one in the UK and one in Brazil, rather than all of the data coming from one trial. So when we talk about a ‘trial’, T-R-I-A-L, that means the study, the act of testing the vaccine – and particularly that pharmaceutical companies, like AstraZeneca have to do. ‘Trial’ or ‘study’ is the other word that’s used for this.
So they’ve released only subsets of the data, only part of the data for each trial. So they’ve excluded, they’ve left out some data. So this already sounds a bit problematic. It risks sounding like what we call ‘cherry picking’, which means that you only include the best bits. ‘Cherries’, C-H-E-R-R-I-E-S are fruit – my favourite fruit actually – and ‘to cherry pick’ means to just take the good bits and leave the rest out. And you can’t do that in scientific trials, so that’s quite a serious thing to say.
It seems that the trial data which gave the result of 90% effectiveness did not include anyone over the age of 55. And other results from other parts of the trial were only 62% effective. Well, it’s probably the over 55s who need the vaccine most – so was it that age made the difference? It’s important to know this. But at the same time, an earlier study from the Oxford group, that was published in The Lancet, another esteemed scientific journal, reported that the AstraZeneca vaccine was ‘equally effective’ in all age groups. What’s also strange – they’re saying that they found out that if they gave a half dose, followed by a full dose, then they got better results in terms of vaccine recipient’s immunity.
It didn’t sound as though they started out with the intention of testing it like this – it sounded as though it was discovered by mistake. I’m not sure how much I would hold that against them – many of the most important scientific discoveries have been made by surprise. And obviously there are ‘side effects’, so the less amount of the vaccine that you need to take to gain immunity, the better. So one and a half doses is better than two, surely? Yeah, so many scientific discoveries are made by surprise. If you only stick with asking certain questions, then you only get answers to those questions. And sometimes in Science, an unexpected happening takes things much further forward and in a different direction – and that can be more important than what the intended result was!
Scientific research trials must stick to strict standards so that they have their results respected. Everything in the trial must be standardized – that means ‘made the same’ – so that you can be more sure that the effects that you see are down to the drug being tested, because everything else is the same. And there are standards like there must be a ‘placebo arm’ of the study. This means that half the people in the study or the trial must receive a placebo, not the real drug.
‘Placebo’ means a pretend thing, a dummy thing – it’s not the real thing, but you don’t know that. And what’s interesting is that human beings often get better just because they think they’re are getting the real treatment – the ‘placebo effect’ is well-known. So half the participants in a scientific trial of this kind must receive placebo, so that you can compare the effect. And of course, this is really difficult for people, where the treatment being trialled may save the lives of the people taking the drug, or make a big difference to their lives.
A photograph of a teacher showing to his school kids brain part of dummy skeleton at school.
Finding out that you’ve been receiving the placebo is really hard sometimes. But these standards are really important – even though they’re hard to stick to, or perhaps in some contexts they don’t actually make sense. But they are needed for the data to be believable, or respected. The word is that the AstraZeneca trials didn’t stick well enough to these standards.
That doesn’t mean that their vaccine is bad, or that it doesn’t work – but it may mean it’s harder for their vaccine to be credible, believable. Two of the other main companies involved in vaccine trials, Pfizer and Moderna said at the start of their trials exactly how they were going to do them and they stuck with that. In scientific terms, this makes their results more convincing.
AstraZeneca started their trial quite early on, but they were held back by the fact that in the middle of 2020, the rates of infection in the UK were dropping. I notice in these studies that the trial participants – that means ‘the people taking part’ – the participants are never purposefully given the virus. I think maybe that breaks some ethical rule to do that. So what this means is that the pharmaceutical company has to wait for the people given the vaccine to be exposed ‘naturally to the virus.
So it all takes longer. And this led to part of the AstraZeneca trial being conducted in Brazil instead, where rates were higher. And part of the problem is also that then for some reason. they used a different placebo, which again doesn’t entirely invalidate their results, it doesn’t cancel them out, but it does mean that you’re not comparing like with like. And pulling data together from several smaller trials and drawing conclusions as a result is a recognised way of doing research – it’s called ‘meta-analysis’.
But the problem here is that results from a meta-analysis are not regarded as being as strong as those from a consistent trial. Hard to do a consistent trial though, if you haven’t got enough people with the virus – or who’re going to be exposed to the virus.
What’s also been a problem for all the trials is that there’ve been two occasions where trial participants – people again taking part - have suffered what’s known as ‘adverse events’. This means that something has gone wrong, somebody in the study has become ill. This usually has the effect of putting all similar research on pause for safety reasons, and that’s what happened here.
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There’s still a discussion around about what level of bad reaction was – and what level of bad reaction we are willing to tolerate. We are in a pandemic, and isn’t it more important to save lives generally? One side of the argument says ‘Yes, we need to trial it and go ahead anyway’. On the other hand, if you’re going to give a vaccine to millions of people, even if a small percentage have a bad reaction, it means that a lot of people are affected. Is that acceptable? It’s unclear at the moment and the suggestion also seems to have been that the adverse reaction was either an ‘unrelated condition’ or even that it ‘happened in the placebo side of the trial’.
Although this is concerning, I think that the AstraZeneca trial is still promising. And with such a massive job ahead of vaccinating the world’s population, it may be better to have 3 vaccines instead of 2 – and 90% effectiveness is still more than good enough. The FDA in the US, the Food and Drug Administration set the target as ‘above 50%’, so AstraZeneca are well within the range. The UK government have already ordered a 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, so that’s enough for most of the population of the UK. So if you live in the UK, this is probably the vaccine that you’re going to be offered, so let’s hope that it’s OK!
Learning English, talking and being topical, all about a vaccine. I hope you find this podcast informative and good for practising how to speak English well. Adept English – one of the simple secrets to instantly improve your English!
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.