IT IS too early to be jubilant, and no time to be complacent, but as we head towards the end of a year that has been devastating to lives and livelihoods alike, there is at last some cause for optimism. No fewer than three separate vaccines against Covid-19 have reported extremely encouraging results.

The Pfizer, Sputnik and Moderna phase three trials all suggest greater than 90 per cent success, and there are signs that other vaccines, such as the Oxford AstraZeneca trial, which has just released its phase two findings, may prove similarly or even more effective. Given that the development of new drugs and treatments often operates on a timetable of years or even decades, it is a startling achievement to have reached this point in less than a year.

The urgent need to respond to a global emergency and the dedication, technical expertise and industry of scientists were the chief impetus for this exceptional speed. But it is also noteworthy that competition amongst privately owned and funded firms, rather than government-run programmes, got us to this point.

Lazy characterisation of “Big Pharma” as heartless capitalists gouging the unhealthy poor has always been, for the most part, grotesquely unfair: this work vindicates Adam Smith’s claim that commercial self-interest is not the enemy of the common good, but often makes the greatest contribution to it. The slowness and enormous costs of developing new medical treatments is a function of financial risk (the majority of drugs, despite huge investment, don’t make it) and regulation.

While responsible governments are right to insist on such safeguards, they suffer from moving at the pace of bureaucracies: the majority of development time is spent waiting for results to be signed off, procedures approved, and academic oversight from public bodies. This shows how much more nimble the private, competitive model is when governments enable, rather than impede, it.

That is one reason why we are not yet out of the woods: even with an effective vaccine (or several), the logistics of prioritisation and delivery are enormous. The UK government’s Vaccine Task Force under Kate Bingham deserves plaudits for having secured or optioned many millions of doses of the potential frontrunners, but it still needs to be delivered.

The record of the governments on delivering track and trace is not only in contrast to the efficiency of the pharmaceutical companies, but provides a real concern for the efficient roll-out of any vaccine. That cannot be fumbled.

We must hope that is handled by Holyrood or the UK more effectively than either has achieved on testing or clarity of messaging. Even if lessons have been learnt, however, and delivery is well managed, it seems impossible that this will be until, at best, early next year.

While we all want a Christmas as close to normal as is possible – for the sake of the economy and family life – it would be folly to exchange a few days of relaxation for a cataclysmic rise in cases in January and a return to severe constraints.

Unfortunately, that is going to demand continued vigilance, caution, honesty and clarity from governments, and personal responsibility and compliance with the rules from the public. Whatever misgivings there may be about the efficacy of lockdown, or the comparative damage of the virus and high street closures, we must be able to trust people to make careful judgments and to comply with the rules on distancing and limits on numbers. If a vaccine is the gift we all want, it will be worth waiting just a little longer.