COVID-19 vaccine is great but NJ experts still have questions
The news that Pfizer delivered a few days ago, that early test results of its fast-tracked COVID-19 vaccine indicate it’s more than 90% effective, is being hailed as remarkable.
The virus has killed almost a quarter of a million Americans, including more than 14,600 Garden State residents, and new cases and hospitalizations are suddenly spiking in New Jersey.
Despite the encouraging report from the pharmaceutical giant, Dr. Ed Lifshitz, the director of communicable disease services for the state Department of Health, said it’s way too early to assume the vaccine will turn out to be the breakthrough everyone is hoping for.
“There’s an awful lot we don’t know yet. We don’t yet know what the real numbers will be. We don’t yet know whether that’s 90% across all age groups and whether it will be equally effective in the elderly, infirm and people with worse immune systems,” he said.
In Stage 3 testing that is continuing, some participants have gotten the vaccine while others got dummy shots. Pfizer released no specific breakdowns but for the vaccine to be 90% effective, nearly all the infections must have occurred in placebo recipients. Pfizer cautioned that the protection rate might change as more COVID-19 cases are added to the calculations.
Lifshitz pointed out even if the vaccine does turn out to be effective, “we don’t know how long immunity might last, whether it might need to be given regularly, so there’s an awful lot we don’t know yet. We definitely will learn more in the coming months and will have a lot more to say on it.”
The vaccine is made with a new technology. "MRNA vaccines" aren't made with the coronavirus itself, meaning there's no chance anyone could catch it from the shots. Instead, the vaccine contains a piece of genetic code that trains the immune system to recognize the spiked protein on the surface of the virus.
“Virus vaccines for things like influenza, 40 to 60% is where it’s typically estimated its efficacy is,” Lifshitz said. “The FDA has said they would approve any COVID vaccine that was above 50% effectiveness, so 90% would exceed expectations. Vaccines almost never are 100% effective.”
He also pointed out that “even with not 100% effectiveness, they very commonly protect people, so they tend not to get as serious a disease if they do get it.”
Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government's top infectious-disease expert, said the results suggesting 90% effectiveness are "just extraordinary." He added “it's going to have a major impact on everything we do with respect to COVID," however other challenges remain, including storage and distribution.
The Pfizer vaccine (made in partnership with BioNTech) must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, which is much colder than what most vaccines require.
That means there will be transport challenges and limited locations in New Jersey where the COVID vaccine will be kept.
While pharmacies and doctors offices typically have refrigerators and freezers that are used to keep many medicines, including the influenza vaccine, extreme ultra cold storage capabilities are not widespread.
If the Pfizer vaccine does get quick approval and a distribution process is created in the coming months, it will be a significant achievement.
The development of vaccines typically takes several years and sometimes a decade or longer, but the COVID-19 vaccine effort has been fast-tracked because pandemic has been so deadly, killing more than 1.2 million people in the world.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.