COVID-19: Vaccines continue to progress as more proof of long-lasting immunity emerges
Written by Ana Sandoiu on November 10, 2020 — Fact checked by Zia Sherrell, MPH
In our ‘Hope behind the headlines’ series, we continue to round up the most encouraging results in COVID-19 research. But, as the pandemic continues to unfold with many countries embracing a second lockdown, a critical approach to these hopeful results is more necessary than ever.
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In a live social media chat, Dr. Anthony Fauci announced a few days ago that the first doses of a safe coronavirus vaccine are set to become available in late December this year or early January 2021. This is, of course, if everything continues to go smoothly.
Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), was referring to two candidate vaccines currently underway: one in development by Moderna Therapeutics in collaboration with NIAID, and the other in development by Pfizer in partnership with BioNTech.
Since then, Pfizer announced a 90% effectiveness rate for its candidate vaccine. In this article, we track the progress of these therapeutics and offer a critical — yet hopeful — perspective.
Why mRNA vaccines are speedier
MNT recently covered what Tal Zaks, Chief Medical Officer of Moderna Therapeutics, and Prof. Uğur Şahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech, had to say about their candidate vaccine at the recent Wired Health:Tech event.
Both the Moderna-NIAID and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use mRNA — that is, they use genetic information rather than a viral base to “train” the immune system to respond to SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The speakers explained how an mRNA-based vaccine could be made available faster and is generally superior to other types of vaccines that use a viral base.
They cited “the infrastructure required” as being “relatively small and quick.” They also mentioned that, because the starting point is genetic information rather than the virus itself, “there is a component of speed that allows you to get into the clinic and then […] scale-up manufacturing.”
However, it is worth noting that while both of these candidate mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 show promise in early-stage clinical trials, there is no data available yet to confirm that they can prevent people from developing the disease.
It is also important to note that there are no human-licensed mRNA vaccines for other diseases. If the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve these vaccines, it will be groundbreaking, not just in the fight against COVID-19, but for mRNA vaccines in general.
By December we should know if we have a safe, effective vaccine
Both candidate vaccines are currently in stage 3 of clinical trials, to test their efficacy in large-scale studies comprising tens of thousands of people.
Moderna expects to release its trial stage results later in November. By December, we should know “whether or not we have a safe and effective vaccine,” Dr. Fauci said in the live session.
Pfizer announced the results of its late-stage clinical trials this week. In a move that boosted stock markets across the globe, the company said their candidate vaccine is 90% effective. Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s CEO, hailed the results as a “great day for humanity.”
“Today is a great day for science and humanity. The first set of results from our phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial provides the initial evidence of our vaccine’s ability to prevent COVID-19.”
– Dr. Albert Bourla
However, it is worth noting that, at the time of publication, Pfizer have not yet released their data. It is likely their 90% effectiveness rate derives from a small number of participants. Therefore, questions remain about whether the candidate vaccine is safe and effective in older adults and vulnerable populations, who are likely to receive it first.
As soon as the data are released, MNT will cover the ins and outs of the trial and offer a critical perspective.
However, as Dr. Fauci said in his live session, if everything goes well, the first vaccine doses will become available to high-risk people and groups considered most vulnerable and most in need “by the end of December or the beginning of January.”
However, it is unlikely that life will return to normal “until the end of 2021 at least,” he continued. This is because it will take a while before a vaccine is mass-distributed, and even after it is, vaccine-induced immunity takes some time to build up on a national and then global level.
While the end of 2021 feels like a long while ahead, there are other reasons to keep our hopes up in the meantime. Here are other immunity-related scientific findings that we can add to our arsenal in the fight against the new coronavirus.