Patient receives coronavirus vaccine candidate during a clinical trial
Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)

Another drug company announced an effective coronavirus vaccine candidate, while Dr. Anthony Fauci cautions Americans to “hang in there” and follow safety recommendations a little longer. 

The fight against COVID-19 got a shot in the arm with recent good news: Three drug companies have announced vaccine candidates with high success rates against the virus, and plans are already underway to get the drug to the most vulnerable US populations. Still, there are gaps in testing for certain demographics, and experts caution the need for continued vigilance in order to safeguard the majority of Americans until community immunity can be achieved. 

Drugmaker AstraZeneca said Monday that results from its late-stage clinical trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was at least 70% effective in preventing COVID-19. This is the third company to announce promising data for a COVID vaccine, following Pfizer’s Nov. 9 announcement of over 90% efficacy for its drug, and Moderna’s reported vaccine efficacy rate of almost 95%. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, had previously said a vaccine with a 70-75% effectiveness rate would be acceptable. 

A Food and Drug Administration vaccine advisory committee is slated to meet Dec. 10 to decide on emergency use authorizations. White House vaccine chief Moncef Slaoui said the first round of vaccinations could begin to ship out within a day of approval. Industrial-scale manufacturing of the vaccines already took place, so millions of doses are simply waiting on the go-ahead. 

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“Our plan is to be able to ship vaccines to the immunization sites within 24 hours from the approval, so I would expect maybe on day two after approval, on the 11th or on the 12th of December, hopefully, the first people will be immunized across the United States … in all the areas where the State Departments of Health will have told us where to deliver the vaccine,” Slaoui told CNN

It will likely be spring or summer before the percent of the population needed to be vaccinated for a pre-COVID lifestyle to return is achieved. Slaoui said that with the high efficacy of Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, “70% or so of the population being immunized would allow for true herd immunity to take place. That is likely to happen somewhere in the month of May, or something like that based on our plans.”

Fauci agreed that although there could be herd immunity by May, it would require that a majority of the country be vaccinated.

“If you have a highly efficacious vaccine and only a relatively small 40, 50% of the people get vaccinated, you’re not going to get the herd immunity you need,” Fauci told CBS. “If you get an overwhelming majority of the people vaccinated with a highly efficacious vaccine, we can reasonably quickly get to the herd immunity that would be a blanket of protection for the country.

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There are still lots of unknowns about how the new coronavirus vaccines would work in practice. Doctors do not know how long their protection will last. The length of time vaccines protect vary by drug.  

“It will be really important to know what efficacy is—not at two months, but at six and 12,” Dr. Jerome Kim, head of the International Vaccine Institute, told CNN. 

There are also concerns about pregnant and breastfeeding people, who were excluded from all vaccine trials. The vaccines’ potential effects on their bodies and fetuses remain unknown. Health experts balked at the ban, as pregnancy significantly increases chances of developing COVID complications and raises the risk of mortality. The FDA advised companies to at least consider including pregnant people in vaccine trials, as women of child-bearing age make up a disproportionate percentage of frontline workers.

Pfizer spokesperson Jerica Pitts said the company is working on getting the vaccine approved for use during pregnancy. It is conducting early research to see how the vaccine interacts with pregnancy, but is not yet at the stage of human testing.

Another obstacle is ensuring the communities who have been disproportionately affected by the virus actually get the vaccine. According to a survey published Monday, only 14% of Black Americans trust that a vaccine will be safe, and 18% believe it will be effective in protecting them. Among Latinos, 34% trust its safety, and 40% trust its effectiveness.

“The documented historical atrocities regarding mistreatment of African Americans in clinical trials is well-known, with the Tuskegee Experiment commonly known. But that’s not the whole story, when in 2020, we have wide disparities in treatment today. Data suggests Black voices are not being heard,” said Dr. Amber Brooks, a Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based pain medicine physician who leads clinical research trials focusing on populations of color.

Fauci reminded the nation that “help is on the way” in the form of the vaccine, but urged people to continue exercising caution, washing hands and wearing masks. Travel and group gatherings remain dangerous. Vaccines will be available to the general population “relatively soon” if Americans can “hang in there,” he said.

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