Coronavirus vaccine news: Reasons for hope and hesitation

Mike Bebernes
·Editor

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

News about the state of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States has been especially dire in recent weeks. Case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths are spiking across the country as public health experts warn that the worst may be still to come. But amid those grim reports, came some genuinely good news.

Two vaccines under development — one from Pfizer, the other from Moderna — were found to be 95 percent effective in preventing coronavirus infections in preliminary clinical trials, providing hope that a path out of the pandemic may soon become a reality. The results have not been peer-reviewed or released publically, but many experts celebrated both the record-setting speed in which the vaccines were developed and the encouragingly high success rate. Both vaccines utilize new technology that uses genetic material from the virus, known as messenger RNA, to trigger the body’s immune response.

Pfizer asked the Food and Drug Administration for emergency approval to distribute its vaccine on Friday. If approved, the company estimates it could make as many as 50 million doses available worldwide by the end of the year. Moderna is expected to apply for the same authorization soon.

Experts have cautioned, however, that approval of one or more vaccines does not mean that the end of the pandemic is right around the corner. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious diseases expert, estimates that doses wouldn’t be broadly available until April, and even then it could be several months before enough of the population has been vaccinated to establish widespread immunity.

Why there’s debate

Despite the many challenges ahead, the results of the vaccine trials is unequivocally good news, many experts say. The success of these vaccines puts the end of the pandemic in sight, even if it may take many months. The trials also provide hope that other vaccines using messenger RNA — for the coronavirus and a variety of other infections — could be effective, as well.

Others warn against overreacting to the positive news. The findings from Pfizer and Moderna need much more scrutiny before they can be fully trusted, some argue. Even if they do prove effective, there are still enormous logistical challenges to conquer before a significant share of Americans can be vaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine, for example, needs to be stored at negative 95 degrees Fahrenheit, a hurdle that could significantly slow down the vaccination process. High levels of vaccine skepticism may also prevent the country from reaching herd immunity.

There’s broad agreement among experts that optimistic news about vaccines should not be viewed as a reason to throttle back on other efforts to stop the virus from spreading. It’s very unlikely that a vaccine will be ready in time to thwart a public health catastrophe in the winter months if Americans refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Lawmakers would also be making a grave error, many argue, if they treated the forthcoming vaccines as reason not to enact stay-at-home orders or pass economic stimulus.

What’s next

The FDA is expected to make a decision on Pfizer’s emergency-use application in the next few weeks. If the vaccine is approved, the company would be free to begin distributing doses across the country. Once the limited supplies of one or more vaccines become available, it will likely start a debate over which groups should be the first to gain access to the life-saving treatment.

On Monday, U.K.-based drugmaker AstraZeneca announced similarly positive results from trials conducted in the United Kingdom and Brazil. The company said it would seek authorization to distribute its vaccine in low-income countries as quickly as possible. U.S. trials of the AstraZeneca vaccine are still ongoing.

Perspectives

The worst-case scenario is no longer on the table

“Should it hold up, the significance is that one of the most promising and new technologies does work at preventing infection. That may well mean that other vaccines will also work, that we can banish from our thoughts the worst-case scenario of ‘no vaccine,’ and that the world will find a way out of a disease that has already taken 1.2 million lives.” — Editorial, Washington Post

No vaccine can prevent the severe crisis the U.S. will see this winter

“Unless the President changes course, we will have 11 weeks of worsening pandemic, herd or no herd, vaccine or no vaccine.” — Kent Sepkowitz, CNN

Logistical challenges could lead to major delays

“But to distribute those vaccines, the US must undertake the most logistically difficult vaccination campaign in history, with a hesitant and weary public, and at least one vaccine with unprecedented storage requirements. The cause for optimism is real – but so are the logistical challenges that lie ahead.” — Jessica Glenza, Guardian

The end of the pandemic is in sight, but vigilance is still necessary

“We are no longer in the open-ended, dreadful period of spring 2020, when we did not know if we’d even have a vaccine, whether any therapeutics would work, and whether we’d ever emerge from the shadow of this pandemic. We can see the cavalry coming, but until it’s here, we need to lock ourselves down once again.” — Zeynep Tufekci, Atlantic

Optimism about vaccines can make it easier to tolerate safety measures

“Mask mandates, gathering restrictions and business closings are more tolerable — and the impositions they require more justifiable — if we have more confidence that they’ll be temporary.” — Aaron E. Carroll and Nicholas Bagley, New York Times

Having two vaccines available could mean immunity is achieved faster

“I think the best news is that there may be two vaccines that are effective because that means we can reach more people. We still need to show that they're safe and they're effective and we need to build trust with the public — so there's still a ways to go, but this is good news.” — Public health expert Christine Finley to NPR

The vaccine can’t stop the coronavirus if people don’t trust it’s safe

“Public health experts caution that vaccines don’t protect people; only vaccinations do. A vaccine that hasn’t gained enough public trust will therefore have a limited ability to control the pandemic even if it’s highly effective.” — Clint Hermes, MIT Technology Review

Economic stimulus is still desperately needed

“With such good news, it may be tempting for Congress to conclude that a major fiscal relief effort is no longer needed. That would be a mistake.” — Mohamed A. El-Erian, Bloomberg

The Trump administration’s failure will set vaccine distribution way behind

“Sources of hope will be sorely challenged in coming months by Trump administration inaction, soaring COVID-19 infections, and the lack of a genuine infrastructure across the United States for mass immunization.” — Laurie Garrett, Foreign Policy

Messenger RNA vaccine technology could be revolutionary

“The strong early results for two leading Covid-19 vaccines have implications that go far beyond the current pandemic: They suggest the time has come for a gene-based technology that could provide new treatments for cancer, heart disease and other infectious diseases.” — Peter Loftus, Jared S. Hopkins and Bojan Pancevski, Wall Street Journal

The virus may mutate if we don’t do enough to stop it from spreading

“The more people get infected, the more likely it is for new versions of the virus to evolve. If the number of infections remains at current levels — or if it continues to rise — there is a risk that new mutations start to spread. ...If we allow the virus to spread, we risk further mutations, and, consequently, less effective vaccines.” — Sam Fazeli, Bloomberg

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images