John Dolan: If... IF we find a Covid vaccine, I pray people like Cork’s Dr Barry are involved in administering it

Not only must we pray for a vaccine, but we must also pray that it falls into the right hands, and that the people who find it are as altruistic as one of the greatest Corkmen who ever lived, so says John Dolan in his weekly column
John Dolan: If... IF we find a Covid vaccine, I pray people like Cork’s Dr Barry are involved in administering it

EXTRAORDINARY AND HUMBLE: Dr Vincent Barry helped find a cure for leprosy.

IT was billed as “the video the world has longed to see” — and, no, it didn’t show Donald Trump conceding defeat in the U.S election, nor even Patrick Horgan lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

In fact, as videos go it was pretty dull. All you could see was a line of tiny bottles whirring along a conveyor belt.

But the significance was stark: This video, we were told, showed Covid vaccines rolling off a production line. To add to the feelgood factor, the company making them was Pfizer, which has a Cork base, although these vials were being made in their Belgian factory

Now, before you start putting up the bunting, booking a holiday in the sun, and declaring that you survived the ‘Great Covid Scare of March to October, 2020’, I need to puncture your balloon.

Clinical trials for this hoped-for Pfizer vaccine — just like with several other possible Covid-19 vaccines in production around the world — still need to take place. After that, regulators will need to deem that they are both safe and effective to be mass produced.

Even after all that, polls suggest that a large proportion of the population will still refuse to take them, fearing untold reactions. But let’s not get ahead ourselves here.

Suggestions in that video that we could have a workable vaccine as early as December seem woefully off the mark.

Indeed, there are still serious concerns that a vaccine for Covid-19 will ever be found, if the virus proves to be as shape-shifting and elusive to nail down as the flu or common cold.

But we live in hope, and, in my view — and I am not a doctor or scientist, I hasten to add — the chances of a vaccine are probably higher than the likelihood of the coronavirus burning itself out, as happened with the Spanish Flu.

Either of those outcomes by next spring would be just grand, thanks.

Of course, if Pfizer does end up winning the race to find a vaccine it would be one up for Cork alright.

But you sense that the initial euphoria at science finding a cure for this wretched virus would be short-lived, before the mother of all rows erupts about who gets the first shot, which country and demographic are the priority, and who pays what for it.

Imagine if a USA still under the control of Donald Trump finds the vaccine first.

What if China did so (or maybe they already have?!)

Would Russia’s Vladimir Putin want to share the vaccine’s secrets if one of his labs made the breakthrough?

And this is before we get into the ins and outs of what large corporations would do with such a prize. Would they be willing to share their secrets with others for the common good?

So, IF a vaccine is found for Covid-19, you can see how it may not be the remedy for all our problems straight away.

Not only must we pray for a vaccine, then, but we must also pray that it falls into the right hands, and that the people who find it are as altruistic as one of the greatest Corkmen who ever lived ... and whose name most of you probably don’t know.

Dr Vincent Barry, who was born in Sundays Well, the youngest of 11 children, is credited with saving the lives of more than 15 million people.

No, that is neither a misprint nor an exaggeration.

Born in 1908, Dr Barry was one of the great scientists of the 20th century and led the research team which produced a chemical that became a key component of the drug used to treat and cure leprosy.

The reason the word leprosy no longer strikes fear into the western world, as it did for several millennia, is because of Dr Barry.

That alone should be enough to put the former North Mon pupil in the running for the title of greatest ever Corkman.

But it was what he did after his breakthrough that really cemented his legend status, in my eyes.

With this cure for leprosy now at his disposal, Dr Barry, who visited a leper colony in India as part of his research into the disease, faced the problem that many of the countries where it was endemic were the very ones that could least afford his discovery.

So, in 1974, a year before his death, in order to reduce production costs, he donated the patents of the anti-leprosy compound to the Indian government, while also arranging the manufacture of the drug in Ireland.

Just like that. For the hell of it. For the good of the world.

“They sold the patent to make the drug available in the developing world. When you think about it, that was an amazing step,” said Ken Gibson, CEO of The Leprosy Mission. “And it was all very low key. By all accounts this was an extraordinary, quiet revolution,”

Appropriately enough, Dr Barry carried out his work at Trinity College, just a stroll away from St Stephen’s Green, where a leper colony once stood.

He was old school — in the very best meaning of that phrase. Although he won recognition for his discovery, fame and fortune were never his thing.

His daughter, Mairead, who became a GP, once said: “He was very interested in helping people and was very patriotic. The fact Ireland was doing something to stop leprosy was very important to him.”

The more you read about this extraordinary but humble man, the more you like him.

In 1950, Dr Barry had become the youngest Irish person to obtain a doctorate in science, his work on sugars is credited with leading to the establishment of the Irish seaweed industry, and he also carried out important work on chemotherapy. But none of it went to his head.

His funeral in 1975 was attended by the President of the day, Dr Cearbhall O Dalaigh, and future president, Mary Robinson. Also present was his regular bus driver.

Mairead explained: “My father always took the 47 bus into town and the driver knew all about him and his work and turned up to his funeral.”

Whoever finds the vaccine for Covid-19, wherever they are, we can all only hope that they as good a person as Dr Vincent Barry.

More in this section

Sponsored Content