There was some good news on Monday when American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that their partnership with German biotech firm BioNTech had yielded some promising results in the hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine. Early studies show that their vaccine is more than 90 percent effective against the virus, according to a press release.
That’s unequivocally good news for anyone who wants to get over the pandemic that is currently surging throughout the U.S. and hopefully return some normalcy to our lives. “Today is a great day for science and humanity,” said Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla in a statement. “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.”
Now, as Bourla said there, we’re talking about initial evidence here. That means there are still more tests to be run before Pfizer begins distribution which means the vaccine likely won’t be available for months yet — if Phase three testing doesn’t undermine early signs. So, yes, you’re allowed to be excited but don’t get too far over your skis just yet here. So here’s what we do know about Pfizer’s promising new treatment — and what we don’t.
So what’s the actual data saying?
Not very much. This announcement is coming from a press release, which isn’t the same thing as actual trial data. Pfizer and BioNTech are for-profit companies who obviously have a lot of financial motivation to release good news. That doesn’t mean their press release is a lie, but it’s important to remember that the goal of a press release is to generate positive buzz so maintain a healthy perspective when processing any information contained in them.
Was there any data?
For sure. The trials included 43, 538 participants who were sorted into two groups: one who got a vaccine and one who got a placebo. The press release says that 94 volunteers got COVID-19, but most of them were in the placebo group. That’s a good sign that the vaccine is working pretty well, but we don’t know the exact breakdown yet and 94 just isn’t nearly enough to definitively conclude a trial. The Food and Drug Administration is going to wait for more tests before approving the vaccine.
So basically, the attitude here is “cautiously optimistic?”
Heavy on the “cautious.” Vaccine technology has advanced a lot over the last few years and the global push to get a COVID-19 one out is entirely unprecedented. 90 percent efficacy is a very good start. With a success rate that high, it’s possible that fewer people would need to be immunized since this novel coronavirus will have a difficult time finding non-immunized hosts. But the sample size remains much too small to make any definitive claims so beware overblown headlines.
But weren’t there concerns about the U.S. government fast tracking a COVID-19 vaccine and skipping necessary trials?
Pfizer was not a part of the Department of Health and Human Service’s ten billion dollar “Operation Warp Speed” program, that aimed to get 300 million doses of COVID-19 out by January of next year. “We were never part of the Warp Speed,” Kathrin Jansen, a senior vice president and the head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer told the New York Times. “We have never taken any money from the U.S. government, or from anyone.”
That said, if the vaccines clear clinical trials, the U.S. government has agreed to buy at least 100 million doses.
So, best case scenario, when would we have this vaccine?
The timeline remains very up in the air here, since even if the vaccine clears trials there will still be the enormous task of distributing it. First priority will be given to frontline workers and others in high-exposure roles. We could be talking weeks. We could be talking months. It’s just not clear.