Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 Vaccines

When are vaccines for COVID-19 likely to be available? We answer this question and others about the coronavirus.

Are COVID-19 vaccines being rushed?
How are the new vaccines being developed?
How effective does a COVID-19 vaccine need to be to be considered "successful"?
How long will a vaccine be effective?
Should I get the flu vaccine?
Will the vaccine prevent the disease or just reduce the effects?


Are COVID-19 vaccines being rushed?


This is a really tough question to answer. Scientists are certainly rushing to create a vaccine for the coronavirus, with a goal of having one in the market next year. In fact, the U.S. government's program to help accelerate vaccine development is called "Operation Warp Speed."

But that doesn't mean the vaccines won't be effective or safe. The rigorous clinical trials going on in the U.S. will determine those factors. Currently in the U.S., there are several vaccines in phase three testing (learn how vaccines are developed) involving tens of thousands of volunteers. Researchers and the Food and Drug Administration will review data from the trials and determine if any of the candidate vaccines meet efficacy standards. 

As an example of how this process usually works, phase 3 trials of a vaccine created by Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca were paused after one participant became ill. Researchers are trying to determine what made the participant sick. This is how clinical trials for drugs and vaccines normally work. 

Of course, there are concerns that this timeline for COVID-19 vaccines is too fast. In August, MDVIP asked virologist Erica Saphire, an infectious disease authority and professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology, to talk about the vaccines currently under development. 

"We desperately need vaccines to prevent infection with this virus and treatments to treat people that are sick, and we need them faster than we've ever developed them before," she said. "Vaccines can typically take 10 years to develop, the fastest that science has ever done one is four years, and that's for the mumps virus. This year we're going to do it in less than one, so a process that typically takes years is now being compressed into months."

Even so, COVID-19 vaccine researchers have some advantages that other vaccine developers haven't had:

On this last bullet, researchers working on the vaccines have experience working on other coronavirus vaccines, namely ones for MERS and SARS. This is not the first time that vaccines have been developed on substantially accelerated timelines -- H1N1, MERS, SARS and Ebola outbreaks all had breakneck speed vaccine development. The vaccines were still in development, however, when the pandemics petered out. 

So, does this mean that the vaccines will be safe and effective? When one becomes available for public use, you should talk to your MDVIP-affiliated doctor to decide if the vaccine is right for you.

Where do we stand with vaccines?

The timeline for vaccines has been constantly evolving. In August, for example, Erica Saphire, an infectious disease authority and professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology, told MDVIP affiliates that the earliest a vaccine would probably be available is January, but it's more likely that a viable vaccine won’t be available until July 2021 or later. 

In a recent interview with Kaiser Health News, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious disease expert, said it's possible a vaccine could be approved earlier, provided an independent review board reviewing data from clinical trials concluded the evidence was overwhelmingly positive. 

Even when one is available, it will take time to get the vaccine manufactured and distributed. Of course, once a vaccine is available, healthcare workers, first responders and those at the highest risk – nursing home patients, for example — will probably be the first to have access to the vaccine. Here's more on vaccines


How are the new vaccines being developed?


In a word: Rapidly. 

Since the pandemic first took hold earlier this year, there's a major international push to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And they've made lots of progress in a very short time. 

There are more than 160 vaccines in various stages of development, and many are already into the human testing phase. While the path to success is still uncertain, never in human history have so many scientists and resources been devoted to a single public health crisis. 

There are various approaches to creating the new vaccines, which scientists hope will be available in 2021.  You can read about how the new vaccines are being developed here or watch this MDVIP-exclusive webinar with virologist Erica Ollmann Saphire, an infectious disease authority, professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology. In addition to working on coronavirus vaccine, Dr. Saphire helped spearhead efforts for an Ebola vaccine.


How effective does a COVID-19 vaccine need to be to be considered "successful"?


Fifty percent -- that's how effective the Food and Drug Administration says a final vaccine should be according to guidance the agency released to vaccine manufacturers in June.

“To ensure that a widely deployed COVID-19 vaccine is effective, the primary efficacy endpoint point estimate for a placebo-controlled efficacy trial should be at least 50 percent," the agency says.

Why only 50 percent? In a recent MDVIP-exclusive webinar, virologist Erica Saphire, an infectious disease authority and professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology, said that under the accelerated timeframe of the vaccine, if the virus was effective in half of the recipients, that would be considered okay. 

"We know that with this accelerated process and a new virus that we've not encountered before, or tried to defeat before, the first vaccine out may not be the best vaccine,” Saphire says. “So continued vaccine development to try to improve efficacy and improve safety will continue until we get there." 

The vaccine also doesn’t have to be 100 percent effective to make a difference. The flu vaccine, for example, is sometimes only 40 to 50 percent effective, but it still prevents millions of infections, tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths each year, the CDC says.


How long will a vaccine be effective?


The short answer is we don't know. It may depend on the vaccine and it may depend on how your body reacts to that vaccine. To paraphrase virologist and vaccine researcher Erica Saphire, the virus is new and so are the vaccines and we may have to wait a while to see how long the protection lasts. (Watch her webinar on vaccine development here.)

Three vaccines in phase three testing have produced antibodies in the lab and in human subjects, but we don't know if those antibodies effectively keep people from getting sick and how long that reaction lasts. We should know some of those answers once phase trials are complete and the data from them is published. 

"We know that viral protection, at least in the laboratory models, lasts at least a month, but we need that longer term data to see how long it does lasts," Saphire says.


Should I get the flu vaccine?


Nearly everyone over the age of 6 months should get the flu vaccine. Here’s why: While the flu vaccine won’t directly protect you from COVID-19, it can help prevent the flu. If you get the flu, you can be hospitalized. There were 810,000 hospitalizations for flu during the 2017-2018 season, according to the CDC. If you do contract the flu, the vaccine may make its symptoms less severe.

Because the flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, getting the flu vaccine will help your physician determine what testing and treatment you need should you become sick, the CDC says. It is also possible, according to the CDC, to have both illnesses at the same time, which can be a very dangerous combination.  

Reach out to your MDVIP-affiliated physician. They are likely to have the flu vaccine in their office and can arrange for you to come in and get inoculated. They can also recommend other places if they are not giving shots. 


Will the vaccine prevent the disease or just reduce the effects?


Because there hasn’t been a vaccine finalized yet and much of the clinical trial data still hasn’t been published, we don't know the answer to this question yet. 

It's possible that a vaccine will be like the annual influenza vaccine, preventing some cases and weakening symptoms for people who contract the flu. The flu vaccine prevents tens of thousands of hospitalizations even when it's only 40 to 60 percent effective, according to the CDC.

The FDA is requiring vaccine manufactures meet a threshold of 50 percent efficacy on any coronavirus vaccine, but researchers say that future vaccines will probably be much more effective.

Eventually, researchers may be able to make a vaccine like the MMR vaccine, which is 97 percent effective at preventing the measles, for example.

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