As with many things in life, so with vaccines: what shouts loudest and grabs the headlines fastest isn't necessarily the best answer.
When first Pfizer/BioNTech and then Moderna announced Covid vaccines with an unprecedented 95% efficacy the world celebrated. So the more muted response (particularly in the City) to yesterday's news from Oxford University and AstraZeneca was probably no surprise. After all, they were turning up late to the party with a mere 70% to their name.
Looking at those headline numbers, a gap of 25 points in effectiveness was maybe a little underwhelming...especially as this was the vaccine the UK Government had invested most in. But dig deeper and a different picture emerges. One that shows why the Oxford vaccine may be exactly what the world needs.
Park the fact that 70% isn't actually bad for a vaccine (the 2019 flu jab was less than 50% effective). And overlook evidence that the Oxford vaccine may hit 90% in some dose combinations. These are important considerations, but not what actually sets it apart from the other options on the table.
The point to make, when the whole world is in the grip of a pandemic, is that efficacy in trials is of little value if you can't get the vaccine out into the population. And it's here that Oxford has much more to offer...
The Oxford vaccine is based on proven science, whereas the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are very much experimental in their approach. That isn't an issue per se, but it's also true that no vaccines based on their mRNA approach have been approved by regulators before. We are in unknown territory.
There appears to be fewer side effects and greater efficacy amongst at risk older groups with the Oxford vaccine.
It's possible the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be quicker to produce, given the new science involved. But at a cost. The Oxford vaccine manufactures at around £3 a dose vs. £20+ for the alternatives. Given the need to inoculate globally to stop the pandemic, which requires easy access for poorer countries, this is a key consideration.
Reinforcing this cash benefit, Oxford is also a not-for-profit venture. Their vaccine will be made available at cost in perpetuity to low- and middle-income countries in the developing world. It is unclear what mark-up will be involved for Pfizer and Moderna, but we can assume it will increase the price gap even more.
Finally, and again key to mass accessibility, the Oxford vaccine is fridge stable for up to 6 months. That's the fridge you will find in your kitchen...and most kitchens around the world. To be fair, the Moderna vaccine is also fridge stable...but only for one month. Whilst the Pfizer vaccine has to be kept in a specialist freezer chilled to -80. Which isn't especially practical in most situations.
None of which is to downplay the significant achievements of Pfizer and Moderna, particularly as both involve a revolutionary new approach to vaccine development. It's more to point out that, much as big headlines cut through, it's always important to understand the full story.
And there is a lesson here too. Don't necessarily over engineer for marginal improvements if those impact on your ability to reach people in the real world. Sometimes great is good enough, and amazing just gets in the way. And though that Ferrari might look sexy, how practical is it really? Sometimes you still need a Ford to do the heavy lifting.