'This is not the light at the end of the tunnel ... this is a light in the darkness': Brian Bloom on Pfizer vaccine
Since the COVID-19 outbreak started, humanity has been playing from behind. Every time it seemed lockdowns and public-health measures were knocking infections down, the pandemic roared back soon after.
Finally, almost a year later, some good news.
One of the COVID-19 vaccines that was accelerated into trials earlier this year seems to work. The experimental shot, developed by American drugmaker Pfizer Inc. and German biotechnology firm BioNTech SE, appears more than 90 per cent effective in stopping Sars-Cov-2 infections, the companies said Monday.
If the data hold up, that means that for every 10 cases of COVID-19, nine could be stopped. A virus becomes a pandemic because vulnerable hosts create chains of infection. A vaccine at that level of effectiveness, administered widely, is enough to break those chains. If the good news holds, it’s the beginning of the end.
“It’s a really good day for biomedical research,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday. “It’s over 90 per cent, which is just extraordinary and it’s going to have a major impact on everything that we do with regard to COVID.”
In coming weeks, more data will emerge. It’s likely not to be as euphorically positive: The vaccine may work better in some groups than in others. There could be safety concerns that limit its use – including rare side effects that take two or three months to emerge. And the shot must be stored at ultra-low temperatures, a logistical challenge that will make distribution harder and slower.
No matter the obstacles, it’s far better to have a vaccine that appears effective than one that isn’t. And believing there is a vaccine coming allows people around the world to envision an end to social-distancing measures and sacrifices. It means not seeing family for one more holiday, not holidays forever more. It means wearing a mask for a few more months, not for a few more years. And it may be an inoculation against the toxic politicization of public-health measures that have saved – and will continue to save – thousands of lives.
Pfizer’s coup is also likely good news for other vaccine makers like Moderna Inc. that rely on the same mRNA technology, which delivers tailored genetic instructions to prompt the body to produce an immune response. And it shows, in the field, that a vaccine can offer a level of protection against the virus.
Pfizer and BioNTech’s likely next step will be to submit an emergency use authorization application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and continue to gather and provide data on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Once that happens, the agency will likely take several weeks to review the package. Even after an approval, supplies will be limited and are likely to go first to front-line health-care workers and highly vulnerable people. Across government science agencies, top health officials have cautioned that most Americans won’t get a vaccine until spring at the earliest.
Not Over Yet
After news of the trials emerged, the S&P 500 climbed toward a record amid trading volume. But a positive press release and a high-flying stock market don’t mean anything’s actually different in this moment. Only a few countries have defeated the virus without a vaccine in hand. Some were small and well-managed enough to fight back, like New Zealand. Others had technical competence, like South Korea. Some were willing to take draconian measures of control, like China.
The rest of the world has had neither the will nor the skill to beat the virus.
In the past week alone, 6,540 people died from COVID-19 in the U.S., according to the COVID Tracking Project. With case counts rising, that tally will only increase in the weeks ahead. At the current pace, the virus will have killed more than 300,000 Americans by year-end. Until a vaccine is widely available, public-health measures will still be important.
There is more to be learned about the experimental vaccine – Pfizer found out the positive results only Sunday. While it had signed up 44,000 people for the trial, the pandemic’s summer ebb meant that enough infections to make the trial trustworthy were slow to accumulate. With the explosion of the virus in recent weeks, more people in the experiment were exposed and infections in the placebo group started to roll in.
The data-monitoring committee – an independent group – was told of the results Sunday, according to a person familiar with the matter. Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla found out around 2 p.m., and held an early-evening Zoom call with the board to share the good news, said another person. The company’s communications staff then stayed up through the night, with executives involved in the trial finalizing the press release.
In the meantime, scientists will demand that we see the actual data, and traders will take the markets for a ride as investors start seriously thinking about the pandemic’s end. Some of the only stocks falling Monday morning were companies involved in COVID-19 testing, along with Clorox Co. (bleach and disinfecting wipes), Zoom Video Communications Inc. (remote conferencing because you can’t go to work), Peloton Interactive Inc. (fancy at-home workout bikes because you can’t go to the gym), Kroger Co. (because you cook all your own meals now), Domino’s Pizza Inc. (because you’re tired of cooking) and Netflix Inc. (because there’s nothing else to do after dinner).
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine won’t be enough on its own. The companies have a deal with the U.S. to provide 100 million doses, plus as many as 500 million more. That’s likely enough for most of America, but certainly not the world. And the doses will take time to produce. Even if other makers generate their own positive results, the COVID-19 pandemic will last well into 2021 for most people in rich countries, and perhaps far longer for those in poorer ones.
In the U.S., a tough winter is ahead. On Monday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is coming “dangerously close” to a second wave of infections, after this spring becoming the worst-place hit on the planet and losing thousands of residents to the virus. Around the rest of the country, cases have been hitting new daily records.
“We are entering the hardest days of the pandemic. The next two months will see a lot of infections and deaths,” Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said on Twitter. But, Jha added, “There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Today, that light got a bit brighter.”