'Milestone' Coronavirus Vaccine Is Said to Give 90% Protection – But What Do the Experts Think?

Claudia Canavan
·7-min read
Photo credit: Iryna Veklich - Getty Images
Photo credit: Iryna Veklich - Getty Images

From Women's Health

Is 2020 – until now, most cursed year of recent times – about to pivot course? For today, while big numbers of people in this country basked in the confirmation of the US election results, news of 'The first effective coronavirus vaccine' has been delivered.

This, according to early analysis, can prevent more than 90% of people from getting Covid-19. The vaccine, which has been developed by pharmaceutical outfit Pfizer and biotechnology company BioNTech, has been tested on a sweeping cohort of people: 43,500 in six countries. Right now, zero safety concerns have been raised. The plan from the two businesses is to apply for emergency approval, which would allow this medicine to be used by the end of this month.

How does the Pfizer vaccine work?

So, how does it work? This specific formula (right now, there are around a dozen other vaccines made by different organisations, in final stage testing) is experimental. It involves injecting you with part of the coronavirus's genetic code, in order to teach your immune system how to fend it off. Trials have shown that this vaccine trains your body to create both antibodies and T-cells, which work to nix the virus before it takes hold of your system. For it to work, you need two doses, three weeks apart. So far, trials have shown that 90% of people are protected from the virus seven days after the second dose.

Prof Ugur Sahin, one of the founders of BioNTech, described the results as a 'milestone'.

Can I get the Pfizer vaccine?

Pfizer say that they think they will be able to supply the globe with 50 million doses by the end of 2020, going up to 3 billion by the end of 2021. Here in the UK, we should have 10 million this year. An extra 30million are already ordered. Naturally, those most in need will be prioritised, in the event that this vaccine does come into circulation. A statement from Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson said that these findings were 'promising' and that 'the NHS stands ready to begin a vaccination programme for those most at risk once a Covid-19 vaccine is available.'

What do the experts say about the Pfizer vaccine?

Now, this news has, largely, received a warm welcome from scientists. The general vibe seems to be that this is an encouraging moment, and, potentially, a break through in terms of making life somewhat easier for a lot of people. Some have made bold statements. While speaking to BBC Radio 4's The World at One, Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of the Government's vaccine taskforce, was asked if he believed that people could anticipate 'normal life' by spring. He replied: 'Yes, yes, yes, yes. I am probably the first guy to say that but I will say that with some confidence.'

That's not to say, though, that it's definitely time to crack the fizzy open, at present. Concerns have been raised, in some quarters, with some academics advising that we reign in the excitement. Here's what the experts have to say.

Prof Azra Ghani, Chair in Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Imperial College London:

'Whilst the news of this vaccine is very welcome, it is important to bear in mind that in the short-term the vaccine doses will be limited. As noted by Pfizer, there will be 50 million doses available in 2020, and 1.3 billion doses in 2021. It is likely that in most settings these doses will be allocated to the highest risk groups – including elderly and vulnerable populations, health care workers, and other highly exposed groups.

'Vaccination will take time; and importantly the vaccine requires two doses 21 days apart before it is efficacious. We also do not yet know how efficacious the vaccine is over a longer time period, or in particular high-risk groups. As the process of vaccination evolves over the coming months it will be important to maintain social distancing and other mitigating measures to avoid overwhelming the health system and putting those who are not vaccinated at risk of disease.'

Prof Stephen Evans, Professor of Pharmacoepidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine:

'These provisional results look promising and this is a great encouragement for all the vaccines under trial. However, once again we have a press release without detailed data, even on the provisional result. 90% efficacy is definitely good news, but there is some uncertainty. It is not known whether the efficacy is constant across age groups, and it is results in the elderly that are required for the first use of the vaccine in high risk people.

'It seems difficult in the light of an encouraging finding to raise concerns. The fact that the DSMB should release results but also continue the trial recruitment is unprecedented in my experience. It is going to make recruitment more difficult and the ethics of continuing to randomise people to placebo within this trial may be questioned. It may also lead to pressure to vaccinate the placebo group with the Pfizer vaccine. This will mean that the longer term follow-up within the properly randomised trial will become difficult, and it may be the longer term where the true benefit and harm balance will need to be assessed. It’s encouraging news, but the process does not seem to have followed usual procedures, and that might leave some concerns.'

Dr Andrew Preston, Reader in Microbial Pathogenesis, University of Bath:

'The press release from Pfizer reporting the preliminary estimation of the efficacy of their RNA-based COVID-19 vaccine offers great promise for changing the course of the pandemic. Pfizer report an efficacy of greater than 90% for protecting individuals from COVID-19. This is excellent news, and very welcome.

'However, the actual data from the trial is not publicly available for full scrutiny, and it is noted that the trial is not yet complete. There is growing concern about public attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccines, with increasing numbers of people expressing doubts as to whether they would receive a vaccine when ones becomes available. Lack of vaccine uptake could greatly compromise the effectiveness of global vaccine programmes, regardless of how good the vaccines are.

'Tackling public concern over vaccine safety and vaccine effectiveness requires full transparency about the vaccines and the processes leading to their use. Until we have full transparency – the data available for independent scrutiny – we can’t be sure how much of a success this really is. Leaving a number of obvious questions unanswered in the release (for example what counts as protection – what are the criteria used to identify cases?) also creates needless uncertainty.

'Pfizer also state that they will apply for an Emergency Use Authorisation before the end of this month which to some will appear a premature move given the required two months of safety data are not yet in, and the trial still in process.

'None of this means that the vaccine is not as effective or as safe as Pfizer indicate and this initial result is certainly promising. But there have been a number of claims made for COVID developments, including treatments (remember hydroxychloroquine, and even remdesivir) that have been dogged by claims of use of selective data, or ignoring caveats. This cannot happen for COVID-19 vaccines if we are to encourage the high levels of vaccine uptake required for vaccines to be the intervention measure that we need them to be. Companies should avoid these unnecessary pitfalls in the coming months as we near the point of roll out of vaccination.'

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