French specialist: Covid vaccine will not eradicate virus

A high profile French vaccination specialist has predicted that France will begin Covid-19 jabs in early 2021, but explained why the virus will not disappear completely

15 November 2020
By Hannah Thompson

A high profile French vaccination specialist has predicted that the first Covid-19 jabs will begin in France in early 2021, and that while the vaccine is safe, it is “improbable” that the virus will disappear completely.

Dr Marie-Paule Kieny is an eminent virologist and head of research at French health research institute Inserm (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale).

She is also president of the government’s Covid-19 vaccine scientific advice council, and was a research director at the World Health Organisation (WHO) from 2002 to 2010.

In an interview with Le Monde newspaper, she has predicted that starting vaccinations in France in early 2021 will not completely eradicate the virus, but that the health situation will be much better within a few months.

Her comments come after German-American group Pfizer and BioNTech have said that their vaccine works with 90% efficiency, with few - if any - side effects.

When will the first vaccines be given in France?

Dr Kieny said: “Very probably in the first quarter of 2021. But we will not be able to vaccinate the entire population in three or six months. We will probably not be able to even vaccinate most people.

“It depends on the willingness of the public, of the availability of doses, and the results of each vaccination. France has, on the advice of the European Commission, ordered several types, but there are no guarantees that all of them will come to anything, or that they will all be equally effective.

“Vaccination, which should not be mandatory, will be rolled out in several stages.”

France has already published a report into its plans for rolling out the vaccine in the country, with certain groups and professions set to receive it as a priority.

Read more: Covid-19 vaccine ‘should be mandatory for all’ in France

Will the virus disappear?

Dr Kieny said that “it is very improbable” that the virus would be eradicated completely.

She said: “We managed it with SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome, identified in 2003] because we intervened much earlier in the virus spread. With SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, it is too widespread for us to eliminate through collective immunity via vaccination.

“A model published in [journal] The Lancet said that we would need to vaccinate almost 100% of the world population with a vaccine that is almost 100% effective over several years. We are far from being able to do that.”

How will life look if the vaccine does not disappear completely?

Dr Kieny said: “I hope and believe that the situation will normalise over time, but we must learn to live with the virus, as we have done with the flu for decades. The situation will be much better here within a few months.

“We will have vaccines that we can use to protect vulnerable people. Ill people will be treated better due to research progress. Developing a new medicine specially for Covid will take time, but we will doubtlessly manage to do it - we found ones that have revolutionised treatment for HIV and Hepatitis C patients.

“We have also seen how important it is to use hygiene methods such as washing hands frequently. That also makes a difference.”

How can we increase public trust in vaccines in France?

Dr Kieny also commented on the low level of trust the French public has in vaccines in general.

A recent survey by Ipsos released on November 5 shows that only 54% of people in France would get vaccinated against Covid-19, if a vaccine were available.

People in France were the least likely to get vaccinated out of all the fifteen countries surveyed, with the average percentage of people in favour of vaccination at 73% (from India, China, UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the US).

Read more: France poll: 46% would decline Covid vaccination

On this issue, Dr Kieny said: “[To improve confidence] we must tell people what this is. We must be very transparent about possible side-effects, on the effectiveness of vaccines after vaccination, and also in the months after. We must be precise about which people they protect well, and which they protect less well.

“We must show that the first aim of vaccination campaigns is not to help industry make a profit, but to ensure public health.”


Storage temperature issues?

The Pfizer vaccination must be stored at a temperature of -72 °C to remain effective, which some have said could present a challenge in distributing the jab safely.

Dr Kieny said: “Everything depends on how long the doses must be stored before being used. If Pfizer delivers all of the orders in one go, we may have a problem. But if the lab can deliver - for example, once per month - the solution will be more manageable.

“I hope that authorities have allowed for the order of special freezers, because I am not sure that we currently have enough in our research laboratories.”

Pfizer and BioNTech reaction

On the Pfizer and BioNTech results specifically, Dr Kieny said: “We are not going to hide our happiness [over the result]. But this ‘90% protection’ figure must now be confirmed by scientific data. In its press release, Pfizer said that the protection was measured between 7-15 days after vaccination, when patient immunity is strongest.

“But this tends to drop over time. Will it maintain this level over several months, drop gradually, or strongly? We do not yet know.

“We are also waiting to see data on the effectiveness of the vaccine on different types of population, especially older people. We also have to determine if it protects from the symptoms of the illness, or if it also stops the spread. Whatever happens though, it is a very encouraging figure.”

Dr Kieny also said that the stoppage of three clinical trials in the world due to illness was “not worrying”, but “on the contrary, rather reassuring”. She said: “This shows that despite the urgency of these trials, the control systems are working.

“These interruptions are not rare. Serious side effects always happen around all clinical trials. Each time, we have to see if these effects are to do with the vaccine. If a link is not established, the trials start again, with extra awareness on new side effects.”

New vaccine, new risks?

Dr Kieny also addressed fears that the Pfizer vaccination was “risky”, as it uses an mRNA genetic sequence, which has never been used in a human vaccination before.

She said: “We must not be afraid just because it is new. It is in periods of crisis that human beings are at their most creative. The Ebola vaccine was the fruit of new technology too. Before being tested for this virus, it had been sitting in scientific drawers in Canada for ten years, and it might never have come out without this epidemic.”

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