Yesterday, pharmaceutical giants, Pfizer, announced that they have developed a COVID-19 vaccine that is more than 90 percent effective. We take a look at their vaccine candidate and report on all of the details that you need to know.
“Today is a great day for science and humanity,” said Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, as reported by The Hill.
COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill in 2020, infecting more than 50 million people worldwide and killing 1.2 million, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics. Millions more have been affected by the hard-to-measure consequences of the lockdown restrictions enforced in countries around the world. The development of a vaccine, however, will help the world move on from the devastation and to return to something that resembles our normal lives. But there are still some important questions that need to be answered.
How effective is the vaccine?
The results with regards to the vaccine’s efficacy are far above expectations set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that a vaccine has to be at least 50% effective in order to be approved. Experts have been warning the public that many vaccines are not 100% effective. The trick, with most vaccines is rather that they are so widely distributed that the shortcomings in their efficacy are compensated for by herd immunity. In other words, even if the virus isn’t effective for me, the fact that its effective for other people slows the spread of the virus to the point where it never reaches me in the first place.
While the full details of the clinical trials that were observed during the development of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are yet to be released, it has surprised top experts.
“It’s an incredibly high number for most vaccines,” Bob Wachter, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, told The Hill. “Most people were expecting 50 to 70 percent.”
Some of the outstanding questions include how long the protection from the vaccine will last. People may have to return every year to get a shot again, for example. There is also not yet data on how well the vaccine works in subgroups, like the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
When will it be available?
It is important to manage expectations here. There is still a lot of red tape to go through and Pfizer will have to wait until the third week of November before it has gathered enough data to meet the safety standards required by the FDA. Following that, they need to apply for emergency authorisation. The company has said that there have been no safety concerns so far.
It won’t be immediately available to the general public right away either. Initial doses will be limited and will go to high-risk groups like health care workers or the elderly first. Experts are expecting the first doses to be issued by the end of the year, but will only be distributed to the general public several months into 2021 – and that’s just in the US. It is likely, as is the case with other vaccines, that parts of the developing world may not be able to deliver the vaccine to large swaths of their populations for many years to come.
Pfizer plans to have 100 million doses of the vaccine available in the U.S. from December through March, under a previously announced deal in which the U.S. government purchased those doses for $1.95 billion. And, because each person requires two doses, that will translate into safely vaccinating only 50 million people, less than one sixth of the total US population.
“My personal hope is to see people vaccinated in the U.S. before the end of the year,” Alejandro Cané, a vaccine official at Pfizer, said. “Definitely that is our hope and we are working so, so hard to have the information that the FDA required in order to fulfil their requirements and to have the safe and efficacious vaccine available.”
What about distribution?
This is the big challenge. The FDA and other government bodies around the world may be able to approve the vaccine in the next few months – but that’s only half the battle. Administrating the vaccine to the global population is a monumental challenge, particularly in countries with large rural populations or with underdeveloped healthcare systems. Not to mention costs…
State health officials, who are largely responsible for the vaccination effort, warned the United States Congress last month that they need $8.4 billion for vaccine distribution efforts, which they do not currently have. A coronavirus response package has been stalled for months, which would be a vehicle for providing those funds.
“This is a pretty major undertaking,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “It’s not just the scale but also the need for speed. We’ve got to be able to scale up the system further in order to do that”.
“It’s still a really hard problem,” said Wachter, the University of California doctor. “People should not take it as trivial that you have a vaccine coming out of a vat and it’s a straight shot to get it into my shoulder”.
Another major problem is the fact that the vaccine needs to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, far below what a regular freezer provides. This could lead to a large number of doses being rendered completely useless, driving up costs and making the challenge of distribution even greater.
Is it safe to return to our normal lives?
No. Simply because the vaccine will not be widely available or administered to the general population for some time, wearing your masks and maintaining social distancing will still be necessary if we are to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We all need to keep two seemingly contradictory facts in mind,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, tweeted Monday. “1. We are entering the hardest days of the pandemic. The next two months will see a lot of infections and deaths. 2. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Today, that light got a bit brighter.”
Who deserves credit?
As one could have predicted, outgoing US President, Donald Trump, has rushed to take credit for the development of the vaccine and accused the FDA of holding off the announcement until after the election so that it wouldn’t swing the vote in his favour.
However, Pfizer and its partner, the German firm BioNTech, didn’t receive U.S. government funding for research and development, unlike some other pharmaceutical companies working on coronavirus vaccines. However, as we mentioned before, they did receive $1.95 billion from the government to purchase the doses of its vaccine.
“Trump shouldn’t take the credit for the Pfizer/BioNTech progress, but it’s not fair to suggest that this was simply a ‘private sector’ effort,” tweeted Democratic Senator, Chris Murphy. “They got purchase/distribution contracts from the U.S., EU, and Japan, and BioNTech got $445M in funding from the German government.”
President-elect Joe Biden said that the announcement of the development of the vaccine was “excellent news”, while urging caution by saying that “the end of the battle against COVID-19 is still months away.”