27. TOWARDS THE VACCINE: Ajax school

Creating a vaccine, like building a good academy for footballers, is a slow process requiring patience. However, it is worth the time spent because having a vaccine, like having an academy, gives you peace of mind for the future. Ajax Amsterdam, who have one of the best academies in Europe, know this well. Players like Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp, ​​Frank de Boer, Frank Rijkaard, Wesley Sneijder, De Ligt, and De Jong have emerged from the Ajax academy down the years. Last season, Ajax almost reached the final of the Champions League with 40% of youth players, and with an average age of 22. The name of the Ajax academy, De Toekomst, translates as The Future.

To develop a vaccine it is necessary to design, produce, and overcome a pre-clinical phase and three clinical phases. In the Pre-clinical Phase, the vaccine has to be efficient in laboratory experiments and safe for experimental animals. In Phase 1, the vaccine is tested on humans (in a sample size of less than 100 individuals), investigating possible side effects, and determining its ability to stimulate the creation of antibodies. In Phase 2, hundreds of people are inoculated with the vaccine, and the optimal dose is sought to produce a good immune response. In Phase 3, the vaccine is tested on tens of thousands of people and its efficiency in protecting the disease is assessed. As of May 27th, according to the WHO, there are 115 different vaccines in the Pre-clinical Phase, seven vaccines in Phase 1, and three vaccines in Phase 2.

All football fans know stories of footballers who never quite made it; who, for reasons difficult to understand, did not realize their potential and whose careers were over before they’d even properly begun. Xavi Hernández said that the best player of his generation at La Masía – the F.C. Barcelona academy – was Mario Rosas. In the 1997/98 season, Mario scored 18 goals with Barça B, and made his debut with the first team; but he was loaned to Alavés, from there to Salamanca, Castellón, Murcia, he went to Azerbaijan … and after going through some more teams, he hung up his boots at the regional, semi-pro Club Deportivo Burriana. Something similar will happen with many of the more than 100 vaccines that are being developed. They will lose potential in Phase 1 and Phase 2 until withdrawing into anonymity.

from left to right: Mario Rosas, Xavi Hernández, and Iván de la Peña

There are cases of vaccines that have been withdrawn in Phase 3, when only one last step was missing. It happened with the vaccine against dengue, a disease transmitted by a mosquito, and also caused by an RNA virus. When everything seemed to be done to approve the use of the vaccine, a very low percentage of adverse reactions in children, around 0.1%, caused its use in healthy people to be blocked 32. They are unpredictable things, but they do happen. Like that last step that the Carlovich failed to make, a player who Maradona told: «You are better than me.» Carlovich was a star in Rosario (Argentina), but he did not understand the concepts of discipline and schedules. When the day finally came when Carlovich was called up by the Argentinian National Team, he went fishing instead of meeting up with his new international teammates. Therefore, even in Phase 3 of the development of the vaccine, at the last moment, we can have the predicament faced by manager Menotti who smoking a cigarette, enquired about the whereabouts of Carlovich. «Professor, he never arrived» came the response.

Another difficulty of Phase 3 is that it requires vaccinating thousands of people in a place with a high number of infections, in order to study the protective capacity of the vaccine against the disease. Therefore, we can find the frustrating situation in which there is a vaccine ready for Phase 3, but there are no places in the world with a very high number of infections to test the vaccine.

Edward Jenner, the discoverer of vaccines, observed that female milk collectors were protected from smallpox. So he grabbed his gardener’s son and, with one blow, performed the preclinical phase and the three clinical phases on the boy. He was first inoculated with cow pox pus —to vaccinate him— and later human pox pus —to test the vaccine—. The experiment went well. The boy was protected from human smallpox in 1796, and the disease was finally eradicated from the planet in 1980.

Currently, an experiment like Jenner’s would be blocked by ethics committees and drug regulatory bodies, which rigorously monitor each of the phases required before a vaccine is approved. However, in football, there has been a case of bypassing the phases and debuting at the highest level. It happened with Al-Saadi Gaddafi, son of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The pocket money Al-Saadi received from Daddy was sufficient enough to hire Ben Johnson as a fitness coach, Maradona as an advisor, and Bilardo as the Libya coach. His money also bought him a place on the Perugia squad, but before he debuted he had already tested positive for anabolics in a doping control —side effects of having Ben Johnson as a physical trainer—. Finally, Al-Saadi Gaddafi managed to play ten minutes in an official match against Juventus, which Perugia won 1-0.