On Monday, doctors and researchers in Connecticut celebrated news out of Massachusetts-based Moderna that their coronavirus vaccine is nearly 95% effective. With FDA approval, it should be ready before the end of the year.
“My research suggests that they had absolutely no side-effects reported,” said Dr. Reginald Eadie, Trinity Health New England CEO. "I'd like to consider it an early Christmas gift."
“I think it is just beyond amazing and I think even our results were beyond our expectation in the scientific community,” said Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, who led the Pfizer clinical trial at Yale University.
Last week, Pfizer was the first to announce a coronavirus vaccine. The company said it was 90% effective in clinical trials.
This could really be the beginning of the end of the COVID pandemic,” said Ogbuagu.
FDA approval could come in weeks, with limited doses of the vaccines available in late December.
“The vaccines are effective. We want to get it approved as quickly as we possibly can. We want to get doses to people starting in December and then we really want to get the ball rolling as we get into January, February, and March,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director.
Eadie co-chairs Connecticut’s Vaccine Advisory Board, charged with prioritizing who will get the vaccine first.
“People who are at high risk, multiple co-morbidity, the elderly, of course essential workers like those in health care,’’ he explained.
Monday, Stop and Shop announced that it plans to be one of the first pharmacies in the nation to distribute the vaccine once approved following the same safety protocols that it’s used this flu season.
“We do intend to offer it at as many locations as possible across our five states as soon as possible, prioritizing any guidance given from the CDC about certain geographies or patient populations that may be in need of the vaccine first,” said Stop and Shop Clinical Pharmacy Services Manager Brittany Orlando.
The two vaccines use similar technology but there are some key differences. Pfizer said its version must be stored between -70 and -80 degrees Celsius. Moderna said it’s vaccine needs to be stored at just -20.
“I can imagine that most doctors offices and hopsitals weren’t even looking into purchasing the ultra low temperature freezers. Well, with this good news they don’t have to,” said Eadie.
Shelf life is also a concern. The Pfizer vaccine can stay refrigerated for five days. Moderna’s says theirs can be refrigerated up to 30.
With plans to make 100 million doses of the vaccine, Moderna has already started manufacturing, hedging its bets that it will get FDA approval.
“We anticipate being able to ship 20 million of those 100 million before the end of the year,” said Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel.
Nine other drug companies are working on a vaccine. Eadie predicted more announcements soon.
Ogbuagu said the goal is to get as many out to the states as possible.
“I foresee that we would have multiple vaccines available that would work in different ways. Frankly, because no single vaccine manufacturer will be able to meet the needs of the US continent regardless the global need,” Ogbuagu pointed out.
Ogbuagu said children over the age of 12 were included in the Pfizer trial, but future vaccine studies are expected to include more children and other populations that have so far been left out, such as pregnant women.
“Certainly, we’re all concerned about frontline worker who are exposed. The next wave will include, for example school children, just because of the risk of transmitting to teachers and they’re being vectors to parents," he explained.
Will the public give it a shot?
“How could you guys come up with a vaccine for a virus so quickly and guarantee its effectiveness? questioned Lashawn Biggins of Hartford. “I don’t plan on getting the vaccine.”
“You get a little skeptical,” added Margaret Watson.
Watson, who said two of her family members are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, does plan to vaccinate her family, but won’t be rushing to do so.
“I don’t want to be the first round, to be honest with you. I just don’t feel comfortable being one of the guinea pigs,” said Wilson.
Eadie said national surveys suggest that not all health care workers plan to roll up their sleeves either.
"About 60% of the physicians have agreed to take it immediately, about 40% of the nurses. While those are very strong numbers they’re not high enough," he said. “We need all the health care providers we can get to get us through this resurgence," he said.
Researchers say only the measles measures up when it comes to efficacy. By comparison, the flu shot was less than 30% effective last season. However, that doesn’t mean masks will become a thing of the past anytime soon.
“The true test where we are with the pandemic is just the number of cases circulating within the community,” said Ogbuagu.
While scientists are hopeful that the vaccine will be widely available by early spring, they caution it might take until fall to reach herd immunity and loosen up restrictions.
“Help is on the way. It certainly is. But the fact that help is on the way should spur us to double down on some of the public health measures, to be able to use the combination of a vaccine and public health measures. We can do it,” said Fauci.