Adele Phillips discusses how a broad public health campaign with an emphasis on prevention is still important in the fight against Covid-19.

Researchers at the University of Oxford are currently trialling a vaccine for Covid-19 and so far, the results suggest that the vaccine is safe and has triggered an immune response. The UK government is currently negotiating deals with pharmaceutical companies to gain access to vaccine doses. However, on its own, this solution is unlikely to provide the silver bullet that many of us are hoping for – we need broader solutions that prevent the disease.

It is too soon to tell whether the trialled vaccine will be suitable for large-scale distribution and it is likely to be many months at least before there is progress. There is already some evidence that the virus has mutated on a global scale and this is likely to have implications for the success of vaccine development going forward. Populations need to rely on their governments to keep them safe in the meantime, through other prevention measures.

If our experiences with HIV treatment has taught us anything, it is that some groups of people, particularly those in richer countries, will be more likely to obtain the vaccine than others. Considering that the WHO was first alerted to Covid-19 in Wuhan, People’s Republic of China on December 31, 2019 and characterised the virus as a global pandemic just ten weeks later, it is becoming increasingly facile to dismiss the idea that health events in other countries directly impact the fabric of British life.

Ensuring the equitable distribution of a vaccine on a global scale will require a strong focus on reducing global inequalities that perpetuate the spread of communicable diseases.

The public must also be persuaded that a vaccine is safe and effective to encourage uptake. The MMR provides highly effective protection against measles, mumps and rubella, yet the prevalence of measles in UK children rose sharply in 2018, partly due to sub-optimal vaccination coverage. The ‘anti-vaccination’ movement has been gathering worldwide momentum in recent years and there are already attempts to undermine the perceived credibility of Covid-19 vaccine research. At present, we are able to reduce the spread of the virus through social distancing and mask-wearing but crucially, we have to persuade people that these measures save lives.

While a Covid-19 vaccine would undoubtedly save lives, it needs to be implemented within a broader infrastructure of good, old-fashioned public health: a comprehensive approach to preventing disease.

The government needs to develop consistent and effective communication strategies to educate the British public about Covid-19, provide clear messages about what we all need to do to help reduce the spread, and foster relationships of trust by sticking to the guidelines themselves. These measures are as crucial as maintaining accurate epidemiological data, formulating best practice for treatment – and even developing an effective vaccine.

Adele Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in Health Promotion and Public Health in the School of Allied and Public Health Professions.