There have been a number of COVID-19 vaccines in development in the United States and around the world, and one of them has shown some very positive preliminary results in its Phase 3 trial. One particular vaccine developed by Pfizer and German firm BioNTech appears to be more than 90 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 cases.
The first thing to note is that we do not yet have detailed data from the clinical study, and the study itself has not been subject to peer review. It is extremely important that the scientists working on vaccines go over every nook and cranny of the information, all the more so because of the urgency of the project and the uncertainty around vaccines provoked by conspiracy theorists. This is one of four vaccines currently in advanced testing in the United States.
“I would say it’s a historical moment,” Kathrin Jansen, head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer, told the Washington Post. “Something like this has never happened before. First of all, the world was faced with such a terrible situation, the pandemic, and being able in such a short time to go through what usually takes many years. Hearing that at the interim analysis we are over 90 percent effective — it was almost stunning to hear.”
In trials of 44,000 people, only 94 of them have contracted COVID-19, and fewer than nine cases occurred in people who received two vaccine doses. There were no reports of side-effects or other serious concerns, with the side-effect profile being reported as pain at the injection site, chills, and a mild fever, more common in younger participants as opposed to older ones.
These results have arrived as US caseloads are skyrocketing. We’re now seeing more than 100,000 cases per day, and the number of deaths per day has begun to climb upwards as well. It currently stands just below 1,000 deaths/day, compared with 753/day in early September. The COVID-19 death rate has come down sharply from where it sat in April or May, and the crude death rate is not the same as the actual death rate from all COVID-19 infections. But there’s still a relationship between the number of cases, the number of hospitalization, and the number of deaths.
This specific vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) to carry a bit of information about the coronavirus’ infamous “spike protein.” Understanding how this protein works and why it can (or can’t) bind successfully to human cells has been a key part of ongoing coronavirus research, as we’ve covered at several points in the past. Training our own immune systems to recognize the spike protein is a bit like teaching your immune system how to counter a specific strategy in a game like League or Starcraft based on what units/heroes the enemy is deploying. If your immune system understands how to look for the spike protein, it understands an essential component of defeating COVID-19.
This vaccine requires extremely cold storage temperatures (-70C), which could make transporting doses daunting, and it’s not clear how quickly manufacturing can be scaled up. That’s another way in which I don’t want to feed false hope — even if this vaccine is approved, and even if it works flawlessly, it’s going to take time to manufacture and roll out. It’s currently the vaccine that’s farthest along in development, out of a total of 10 projects worldwide currently in Phase 3 clinical trials. In any vaccine rollout, we can assume the first doses would be reserved for the most at-risk parts of the population and those workers who are most likely to come into regular contact with COVID-19 as part of their job. You can read more about this vaccine at Pfizer’s own website, if you’re curious about the protocol or other details of the study.
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