“I’m 79, I won a Nobel Prize, and I don’t give a shit”
By Alex Dew
Outspoken immunologist and winner of the Nobel Prize Peter Doherty said in a recent interview with Australian Financial Review that he believed a vaccine for coronavirus would be available as soon as September. Professor Doherty and Rolf Zingernagel won the Nobel Prize in 1995 in the category of Physiology or Medicine. Doherty has also become a fixture on Twitter, with 35,000 followers, known for his unfiltered tweets. Also famous for his love of whiskey, Doherty recently accidentally asked the Twitterverse about the hours of a certain bar rather than Google.
Among other remarks, Doherty, considered “something of a god in the worlds of science and medicine” according to the Australian Financial Review, said that he has reason to believe a vaccine will be ready as soon as September. Doherty claims that a vaccine created by the Jenner Institute and tested on chimpanzees and ferrets infected with coronavirus showed promising results. This vaccine has been administered to 600 people in the United Kingdom according to Doherty. This is the vaccine Doherty thinks feasibly could be delivered to the British market by September. His own Doherty Institute is currently working with the University of Queensland on a vaccine project, and he says the Chinese are also entering human trials on one of their vaccines. He points out that Chinese scientists’ identification of the virus’ genome very early on is beneficial to accelerating the vaccine development process.
Doherty also mentions the fact that a French fishmonger was reported to have the virus in early December, prior to the outbreak in China, which undermines the timeline of the pandemic. This wouldn’t allow enough time for the virus to travel from France to Wuhan, which first reported cases on December 31st. So is Doherty correct in these claims, or merely a former giant of the community drunk on whiskey and his recent viral status? A sample taken from the Frenchman on December 27th tested positive for the virus, a full month before the disease was acknowledged as having traveled into France. The sample was tested twice and doctors said they are very confident that the fishmonger, Amirouche Hammar, might be the first identified case of coronavirus. Hammar had not recently traveled to any foreign countries, which implies that the virus was spreading in France far before the currently known date and that it could have emerged in Wuhan much earlier than the 31st.
Regarding Doherty’s claim that a vaccine could be ready as early as September, researchers at the University of Oxford have confirmed that the vaccine could be ready by that date. Inovio and Pfizer are also entering human trials for their vaccines. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center also reported positive results from a vaccine tested on monkeys. They have already started collaborating with Janssen, a division of Johnson and Johnson, on a vaccine for humans. The FDA has allowed medical trials to progress at breakneck speed, circumventing many steps in the usual process, which can take several years. And these scientists are waging war against a less formidable foe than originally thought; “The coronavirus itself has turned out to be clumsy prey, a stable pathogen unlikely to mutate significantly and dodge a vaccine,” reports the New York Times.
Scientists, though, are effectively trying to compress a process that can take decades into an “unheard of” 12-18 months, according to Dr. Dan Barouch at Beth Israel. “If that happens, it will be the fastest vaccine development program ever in history,” he says.
But if this epidemic has taught us anything, it is that unprecedented doesn’t mean impossible. Doherty’s claims in his recent interview aren’t baseless, unlike many by others we’ve covered. While having a vaccine approved, manufactured, and delivered to the public by September is an optimistic forecast, it isn’t an impossible one.