Possible COVID-19 Vaccine


(Photo By: Henry Ford Health System)

Karyna Hetman

The Coronavirus pandemic has been negatively impacting the U.S. for nine months and counting, and a magic cure to solve this problem is a wish shared across the globe. Although there is no easy fix, drug-making companies Pfizer and its partner BioNTech have made a breakthrough in this recovery process. On Monday, November 19, the two companies announced the preliminary results of its testing on a COVID-19 vaccine that is underway. It showed to be 90% effective at protecting against symptomatic illness, which is bringing hope that a vaccine will soon be ready for the public as well as a surge in the stock market.

Pfizer and BioNTech started a late-stage clinical trial in July where half of the individuals in the experiment were given the COVID-19 vaccine and the other half were given a placebo. Out of the 44,000 individuals participating in the clinical trial, only 94 had gotten sick with COVID-19. These statistics prove a 90% effect rate for the vaccine in question, which is highly efficient as the FDA requires a 50% effectivity rate for vaccine makers to submit their candidates for emergency authorization. To put this 90% into perspective, the Influenza vaccines are only 40 to 60 percent effective due to the fact the Influenza virus evolves over time. 

Although this news of breakthroughs in the medical field sparks hope, there are still a lot of unknowns about the vaccine. For one, there is no data on whether the vaccine will stop the asymptomatic spread of the virus, which occurs when infected individuals show no symptoms of having COVID-19, thus they stay in contact with others and spread it to individuals without knowing. It also is uncertain whether this vaccine will protect those who have previously had the virus. In acknowledgment of this, Dr. Robert Vitronberg, executive medical director of infectious disease and prevention at Advocate Aurora Health, says, “The infections that we’re really focusing on are the ones that lead to hospitalization.” 

Another cause of uncertainty comes with the effectiveness of the vaccine on varying age ranges. While Pfizer stated that about a third of the participants in the study have “racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds,” Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s vaccine research group, says, “We don’t know anything about groups they didn’t study, like children, pregnant women, highly immunocompromised people and the eldest of the elderly.” It is also worrisome that early clinical studies have found older individuals to produce a weaker immune response to COVID-19 vaccines. With this information, it is debatable how helpful the vaccine will be to elders in need, who are more susceptible to the fatal impacts of this virus. 

The last concern falls on the topic of a new substance being a key ingredient in the developing vaccine. Pfizer uses a new technology, messenger-RNA (mRNA), in the vaccine that has never been approved for human vaccination before. Speaking on this topic, Dr. Richard Besser, president of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says, “The caution is that this would be the first mRNA vaccine to be used in humans, so it’s important to look carefully at the safety data.”

As exciting as this news for a vaccine is, unfortunately, it will not be ready for a while as there is still much work to do. Pfizer states they will most likely apply for emergency authorization within the third week of November, following the collection of two months of safety data needed for the FDA in order for the application to be submitted. After this is done, the agency will meet with an outside advisory committee of experts to go over detailed data on the vaccine’s safety, effectiveness, and the company’s ability to safely manufacture millions of doses. Regarding manufacturing details, Pfizer and BioNTech declare they can manufacture up to 1.3 billion doses a year. While this sounds promising, it is not nearly enough doses to satisfy the current needs of vaccines globally. Although just by the end of this year, the companies predict to have about 30 to 40 million doses of the vaccine, which is enough to help 15 to 20 million individuals. With this lies the question of who will be prioritized in getting the vaccine first. This has not yet been officially decided, but it will most likely be people with major health issues that put them at a higher risk for COVID-19, health care workers, and the elderly. Due to this, health officials think an effective vaccine won’t be ready for everybody who wants it until well into 2021.

In conclusion, the Pfizer and BioNTech breakthrough on a COVID-19 vaccine brings hope for a small solution to this major problem. Much is still unknown about the effectiveness and possible long term effects of the vaccine, but with the urgency of this pandemic, many doses of the vaccine may be distributed soon. In the meantime, it is crucial to continue practicing social distancing and wearing a mask. 

Editor’s note: Since this article was written, a second vaccine candidate has emerged. Using the same mRNA technology as Pfizer, the biotech company Moderna Inc. announced it’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate to be 94.5% effective.