Two Coronavirus Vaccines Are 95% Effective, But When Can You Get One?
In what could be a major leap forward in vaccine development for COVID-19, both Pfizer and Moderna have announced their vaccines are 95 percent effective in preventing the coronavirus. This efficacy is far and above the 50 percent required by the Food and Drug Administration for approval of a vaccine for the virus that causes COVID-19.
The companies expect to apply for emergency use authorizations from the FDA in the coming weeks
If successful, the vaccines will be the first of their type approved by the FDA.
Both vaccines rely on new technology. Traditional vaccines deliver either a dead or weakened form of a virus or part of a virus into your body. Your body sees this foreign invader, or antigen, and your immune system develops antibodies against it. Later, when your body encounters the real virus, your immune system recognizes it and attacks it before it can lead to an infection.
That’s how vaccines have worked for decades. But researchers are using a new technological approach to prime our immune systems. The two coronavirus vaccines currently in the news are called mRNA vaccines, and, if approved, they’ll be the first such vaccines to make it market.
How mRNA Vaccines Work
mRNA vaccines don’t deliver the antigen to the body. Instead, they carry genetic instructions that teach your cells how to make the antigen. This more closely mimics a natural infection, which may ultimately make them more effective.
mRNA is a molecule that tells cells what to build. In this case, the mRNA vaccine carries instructions to create a type of protein that is part of sars-cov-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The immune system then recognizes that protein or antigen and when the real thing enters the body, it’s prepared to fight it.
Why did scientists working on these vaccines take this approach versus a traditional route? Even though there are no mRNA vaccines on the market right now, researchers have been studying the method since the early 1990s. They’ve had setbacks – especially in getting the vaccines to work in humans. Technological advancements have been key. This kind of vaccine wouldn’t have been achievable 20 or 30 years ago.
In traditional vaccines, lab researchers have to grow viruses and then inactivate or weaken either the virus or its protein. That’s one of the reasons it can take years for a vaccine to be developed.
But mRNA vaccines are quicker to develop because scientists can create the protein sequence in the lab in hours or days – not months or years. And as technology has improved, so has the speed. For example, scientists decoded the genome for this coronavirus in early January – it took researchers six to eight years to decode the human genome in the 1990s. The fast decoding enabled researchers to create several mRNA candidate vaccines and begin testing them in the lab and in animals before the coronavirus became a worldwide pandemic. In fact, Moderna went from creation to testing in humans in just 63 days.
(To understand more fully how these vaccines work, watch our member-exclusive webinar with one of America’s top virus scientists, Erica Saphire.)
Getting the Vaccine to the Public
Once the FDA approves a vaccine — as an EUA or traditional approval methods — the challenge will be distribution. Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s public-private partnership to produce a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, plans to begin delivering vaccines to state health departments and other partners within 24 hours of vaccine approval. And vaccine developers have been manufacturing doses in anticipation of approval and distribution.
States will distribute the vaccine to consumers based on plans they’ve developed at the federal government’s request. Many states are like Texas, which expects limited doses before the end of 2020 and will have those shipped directly to providers who serve healthcare workers and other select populations based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, according to a plan the state released in October. As part of their distribution plans states needed to prioritize populations for any vaccine. Texas, for example, plans to reserve the vaccine for essential workers like healthcare personnel, first responders and educators first. The state’s distribution plan will later target people at increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness such as those 65 years or older, residents of long-term care facilities and people with underlying medical conditions, depending on the availability of doses.
Even once a vaccine is approved, storing the vaccines, distributing them and making sure patients receive both doses will be a complex challenge for state authorities. The vaccines themselves are tricky. Pfizer’s vaccine must be kept chilled to 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. While both manufacturers and states are making arrangements to handle such requirements, distribution of this vaccine will be unprecedented.
When Can I Get Vaccinated?
Much of this depends on the number of doses available early, the state where you live and your own demographics. While Texas’ plan focuses on healthcare workers first, some states may include other at-risk populations in their first phase of vaccine distribution.
Even if the two companies ask for EUAs in November (and those are granted), it may be many months before the vaccines are in wide distribution. Initially, it is likely that vaccines will be available through large health centers or health departments, though nothing is certain. Most states have said that vaccines will be available at pharmacies or through physician offices in a later phase of distribution.
Still, there's optimism among health experts that a vaccine may be widely available in late spring or early summer in the U.S.
Is the Vaccine Safe?
This is a fair question. So far, Pfizer and BioNTech haven’t reported any major safety problems with their vaccine. But it’s still a trial vaccine, and the company along with the FDA and the CDC will monitor people who receive the vaccine for safety concerns. Data is also still be analyzed.
The federal government uses a system called Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System to track issues with vaccines. State health departments will also track safety.
What Do I Do Until I Can Get the Vaccine?
Keep practicing social distancing, wearing a mask and washing your hands. Avoid unnecessary travel and things like eating out that increase your risk for catching the virus. The U.S. is experiencing an enormous uptick in new COVID-19 infections and it will be months before a vaccine — even if it's approved soon — will be available.
For more information about the vaccines, visit the CDC’s vaccine FAQ. You can also can discuss vaccines with your MDVIP-affiliated doctor, as they understand your health history and your risk for possible complications if you contract COVID-19.
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