The world has been waiting for good news on Covid-19 vaccines. Monday it got a bunch of it.
A preliminary analysis of the race frontrunner, Pfizer-BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine, suggested it was 90% effective in preventing symptomatic Covid disease. While these are early findings — the trial is still ongoing — they suggest the vaccine could be very protective.
It’s obviously encouraging for the Pfizer-BioNTech partnership. But embedded in the announcement is broader good news for Covid-19 vaccine development. Here are four reasons for encouragement based on the early results, starting with the most important.
1. We are likely to have multiple successful Covid-19 vaccines.
The Pfizer vaccine targets the spike protein, the knobby protrusion on the SARS-CoV-2 virus that allows the virus to attach to and invade human cells, initiating infection.
2. This is terrific news for mRNA vaccines.
The two frontrunners in the race to develop Covid vaccines are Pfizer and Moderna; both use a new vaccine production technology known as mRNA. (Other manufacturers, including vaccines giant Sanofi, are developing mRNA vaccines, but they are not as far along in the work.)
Research has been underway for years on this innovative approach to make vaccines, but to date no mRNA vaccine has been brought to market.
The platform offers huge promise, both in terms of how quickly a vaccine can be designed and how quickly batches can be made. But there are no givens in vaccine development. Until something is shown to work, you don’t know that it will.
3. We may be able to expect more from Covid-19 vaccines than we thought. That could help persuade people to be vaccinated.
It’s early and, as Fauci told STAT on Monday, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.
But there has been a fear with Covid vaccines that they might not be super protective. Many vaccines targeting pathogens that invade our respiratory tracts — think flu vaccine — don’t generate terrific immune responses.
“This vaccine could be more effective than we ever hoped for from the first generation of Covid-19 vaccines,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement.
4. Pfizer’s vaccine’s long-term prospects now look better.
Pfizer’s vaccine will almost certainly be the first to be authorized by the FDA. But it’s also going to be the hardest one to use.
The vaccine has to be shipped and stored at ultra-cold temperatures, -94 Fahrenheit (-70 Celsius). That requirement will limit where the vaccine can be used. Moderna’s mRNA vaccine must be stored at -4 F (-20 C), which is not ideal, but not quite as challenging.
Still, a vaccine that might be 90% efficacious becomes more attractive — regardless of distribution challenges.
Moncef Slaoui, co-chair of Operation Warp Speed, told STAT last week that the storage requirements have been a topic of discussion between the U.S. government and Pfizer. The Pfizer vaccine is not being developed as part of Operation Warp Speed, but the U.S. has pre-purchased 100 million doses of it, with an option to buy an additional 500 million more.
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