Finally, a glimmer of good news related to the pandemic — delivered during some dark days as new COVID-19 infections are averaging well above 100,000 per day in this country. As I am sure you have heard by now, two major pharmaceutical companies — Pfizer and Moderna — have announced successful COVID-19 vaccine trials. If these two vaccines receive the emergency authorization from the Federal Drug Administration that they will soon request, they could be distributing the vaccine to millions of people in the coming months. According to numerous reports, the Pfizer vaccine appears to be 90% effective in preventing infections. The Moderna vaccine is said to be 94.5% effective. What does this mean?
As noted by The New York Times, when “considering licensed vaccines that people regularly receive … influenza vaccines are 40 to 60 percent effective at best, because the influenza virus keeps evolving into new forms year after year. By contrast, two doses of the measles vaccine are 97 percent effective.” The Food and Drug Administration had set the bar at 50% effectiveness for vaccine makers who want to submit a candidate for emergency authorization. It is also pointed out that the true effectiveness of a vaccine can only be determined once it moves out of trials and millions of people get it.
According to Bloomberg News, both vaccines rely on a technology called messenger RNA, which, until now, has never been used to build an approved vaccine. The mRNA technology is designed to transform the body’s own cells into vaccine-making factories. “Once injected, the vaccines instruct cells to make copies of the coronavirus’s spike protein, stimulating the creation of protective antibodies,” says Bloomberg. And, according to The New York Times, there are 10 other vaccines using messenger RNA now in late-stage trials across the globe. “The fact that Pfizer and (their partner) BioNTech have gotten encouraging results is making experts optimistic about the entire field,” the Times’ Carl Zimmer and Katie Thomas point out. “Widespread success of coronavirus vaccines would be a huge boon to the world’s health, because Pfizer and BioNTech alone cannot meet the full demand.”
There will be much talk about these apparent breakthroughs in the coming weeks and months ahead. This news should not be taken as license to ease up on existing protective measures but as reason to find the resolve to bear down until the public health threat has subsided.
“This will not replace hygienic measures — it will be an adjunct to hygienic measures,” Dr. Paul Offit, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Federal Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel, recently underscored to the Times.
According to a Newsweek report, most health officials think an effective vaccine will not be available to anyone who wants it until well into next year. “The vaccine will not come in time to rescue the world from the next several months, when the virus will take many more lives unless the public takes more stringent public health measures,” adds The New York Times. A Forbes report speculates that “demand for treatments is likely to remain strong through the winter and possibly until the vaccine is administered at scale — a process that could take at least a year or two.”
“It is really promising for the field of mRNA vaccines in general,” Anna Blakney of Imperial College London tells the website NewScientist. “What’s more, mRNA vaccines are easier to manufacture than more traditional vaccines. It’s just so much easier to make them at scale.” There are also five DNA vaccines and several adenovirus vaccines in human trials now.
“Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna received $955 million from the U.S. Operation Warp Speed program to develop its vaccine,” says Bloomberg. “The country has agreed to pay up to $1.53 billion to purchase supply of the shot. Pfizer has said it didn’t receive any federal funding to develop its vaccine, though it has a supply agreement with the U.S. worth nearly $2 billion.”
The Bloomberg report goes on to say that Moderna expects to manufacture enough doses of its vaccine to vaccinate 10 million people in this country by year-end. Government officials told Bloomberg they also expect to have enough doses of the Pfizer vaccine, sufficient for another 10 million recipients, available within the same time frame. Still, many public health officials see distribution of the vaccines to be a significant challenge.
Another open question is whether children will get protection from the vaccine, states the Times. This question has now taken on more of a sense of urgency. As reported by USA Today, a report released Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found the number of U.S. infants, children and teens diagnosed with COVID-19 has surpassed 1 million. Children now account for 11.5% of all cases in states reporting cases by age. American Academy of Pediatrics President Dr. Sally Goza characterized the data as “staggering and tragic.”
“While the mortality rates remain low, some experts worry that a rise in cases among children may mean a rise in cases of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) later,” says USA Today.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children as a “condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs. … We do not yet know what causes MIS-C. However, many children with MIS-C had the virus that causes COVID-19, or had been around someone with COVID-19.” MIS-C is now seen as a post-infectious syndrome.