With winter around the corner, it’s no huge surprise to health experts that cases of COVID-19 are skyrocketing.
Dr. Paul Goepfert, professor of medicine at UAB and director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic, is cautiously optimistic concerning today’s news about a new vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech. The world is seeking respite from the novel coronavirus that has killed 1.2 million people. In Alabama, the medical community is seeing some of the highest infection rates since the pandemic began.
On Nov. 9, the pharmaceutical giants announced that their vaccine is “more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19, according to an early analysis that included 94 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in trial participants.” Pfizer hasn’t yet applied for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and won’t do so until it has more safety data. In any case, there won’t be immediately enough doses to vaccinate all Americans.
While Goepfert called the news a “big breakthrough,” he said there are still many hurdles the vaccines must undergo. When the pandemic started, about 70% of people polled said they would not take a vaccine. That rate has since decreased to about 50%.
In addition to Pfizer, pharmaceutical giants Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen have put a priority on enrolling minorities in their studies. Pfizer’s trial included 42% of enrollees with diverse racial backgrounds. Goepfert gave some medical reasons behind the sampling of backgrounds.
“You want a vaccine that prevents COVID disease, not so much infection, though you’d like to have both,” he said. “We know that the disease occurs in terms of morbidity, mortality – people who get hospitalized, people who die – occurs more in the Latinx population, as well as African Americans.”
From a social standpoint, Goepfert said the medical community must show that the vaccine works and is safe in as many different populations as possible.
“The vaccine is not going to work unless you give it to people to be vaccinated,” he said. “People have to earn trust in the vaccine. And if it’s never been tested in certain groups of individuals, then they’re not going to want to take the vaccine.”
At the moment, there is not a vaccine for the general population. On a national level, health care workers would be the first to be vaccinated, then front-line workers and first responders. Afterward, it’s likely that the elderly and nursing home residents would be next in line for vaccinations.
Assuming that the vaccine is 90% effective for everyone – which Goepfert notes is a big assumption – he estimates that about 60% of the U.S. population would have to be vaccinated to achieve “herd” immunity.
“It’s not like measles where you need 90-plus percent, and the reason is the number of people that infect another person with COVID is not nearly like measles,” he said. “In measles, if you’re infected, and you have a fully susceptible population, you infect about 12 to 14% on average.”
When approved, the vaccine will be only for use in adults.
“We’re having just huge rates – we’ve had the highest rates of infections now than we’ve ever had since this pandemic started,” Goepfert said. “We need to bring those rates down because vaccines actually work better when you have lower rates of infection. It will help with vaccine efficacy, as well, if we can do that.”
Goepfert said there needs to be a unified message about how to get out of the pandemic. He said almost everyone at the government level and in the scientific community consistently agrees that a vaccine is the best way to do that.
“I think there’s been concern about the safety of the vaccinations, but there’s nothing that’s 100% safe,” he said. “But historically, vaccines are safe compared to other interventions that we give to people.”
While everyone wants to know when life will return to some sort of normalcy, Goepfert’s estimate is “a year from now, if everything goes according to plan.”
Until a vaccine is approved, the UAB medical community continues to ask people to perform the following for their safety:
- Wear a mask.
- Social distance.
- Practice proper hand-washing and use antibacterials.