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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: What the COVID-19 vaccine news really means

Earlier this week, significant advances were made in COVID-19 research, as Pfizer and BioNTech released data showing their initial vaccine was 90% effective for reducing symptomatic COVID-19 cases.

Earlier this week, significant advances were made in COVID-19 research, as Pfizer and BioNTech released data showing their initial vaccine was 90 percent effective for reducing symptomatic COVID-19 cases. But, while a vaccine may be authorized and put into practice in the next few months, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to throw away your mask and hand sanitizer anytime soon. 

Here are several things to keep in mind as more pharmaceutical companies release their trial data — and to consider before getting excited about things returning to some sense of normalcy.


Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said a vaccine could be available to the general U.S. population by April 2021. The first people to receive the vaccine would likely be health care workers, elderly individuals and individuals with underlying conditions. And the U.S., U.K., European Union, Canada and Japan have claimed over 80 percent of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine supply, meaning the vaccine wouldn't be available to less developed countries until the end of 2021 — so international travel will remain largely out of the question for a while. 

However, it's not clear how easy it will be to ensure the vaccine can go from pharmaceutical companies to the general public. For example, Pfizer’s vaccine must be kept at temperatures below -176°F, making it unlikely to be distributed to every doctor’s office and pharmacy. 

Additionally, it’s difficult to convince individuals — especially those who are already skeptical of vaccines and the government’s influence on accelerating the approval timeline — to get the vaccine when it comes out. Experts have predicted that about 70 percent of the population will need to be vaccinated to provide “herd immunity.” This becomes especially difficult given that the long-term effects of some of the vaccines are widely unknown. 

Vaccine effectiveness 

Although the preliminary data released by Pfizer indicated a 90 percent efficacy rate, the data is just that: preliminary. The first vaccines are likely only going to provide moderate protection, and due to the accelerated testing timeline, some may be abruptly pulled from the market due to safety concerns. 

The United States developed Operation Warp Speed, a multiagency effort to allow vaccine makers to run their own trials under government funding — but only if they used protocols that followed set guidelines and let the National Institutes of Health test all of their volunteers in the same way. Some companies participating, like Moderna, are expected to release the results of their clinical trials in the upcoming weeks.

However, Pfizer was one of the front-running pharmaceutical companies that never joined the network, instead choosing to run trials on their own. While their results were promising enough to ask for emergency authorization, the results may have significant margins of error due to the quick testing process. It’s important to keep in mind that, although the vaccine may have been proven to be effective in trials, it likely won’t have the same high success rate in another environment, leaving individuals who have been “vaccinated” potentially still at risk.

Continuing precautions

It’s also important to keep in mind that vaccines won’t mark the end of the pandemic. Just like any virus (like the common cold), vaccines are just another hygienic measure to maximize containment. Even when a vaccine does become available, controlling the virus will also require effort on the part of the public to continue wearing masks, maintaining social distancing protocols and avoiding crowds. 

Additionally, being vaccinated does not mean that you are 100 percent protected against the coronavirus, and studies still have to be performed on exactly how long that protection may last. However, as more data is shared among pharmaceutical companies, the more vaccines can be improved upon. Eventually, they could be used in parallel with current precautions to eradicate the virus for good.


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