With the dark winter months looming, there’s one glimmer of hope in the fight against the COVID-19 crisis.
Two, to be exact.
Vaccine candidates from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, and from Moderna have shown to be 95 percent effective in ongoing trials.
The promising results have prompted Pfizer to seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use, with Moderna expected to follow suit in the coming weeks.
But while federal health officials remain optimistic that help is on the way, the availability of vaccines doesn’t equate to an immediate cure to coronavirus.
Here is a realistic timeline of when an effective vaccine could be on tap for all Americans.
When will a vaccine be available?
Millions of doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should be available to certain groups by the end of December, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
“We expect to have about 40 million doses of these two vaccines available for distribution pending FDA authorization — enough to vaccinate about 20 million of our most vulnerable Americans,” Azar said at a Nov. 18 press briefing. “And production of course would continue to ramp up after that.”
Globally, Pfizer has said it could have 50 million doses by year’s end.
A different projection, according to information presented to the National Academy of Medicine in late November, said about 25 million doses could become available in the US in December, 30 million in January and 35 million more in February and March.
The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed has worked with states to determine how many doses they’ll need to cover the populations offered a vaccine first.
Azar said once the FDA gives the green light, millions of doses will be shipped within the first 24 hours.
“So my message is hope and help are on the way,” he said.
Emergency approval from the FDA, however, is not the same as full approval, meaning anyone who gets the shot will receive a “fact sheet” listing the potential benefits and risks as the studies continue, Dr. Marion Gruber told the Associated Press.
How will vaccines be distributed and who will get them first?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will have the final say on who gets first dibs, and Azar has said the initial batch of vaccinations will go to the “most vulnerable Americans” first.
That committee is following guidance from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which advises divvying up the vaccine distribution in phases.
The first phase includes front-line health workers and first responders, people with underlying conditions that put them at high risk of serious illness, and adults age 65 and older living in overcrowded settings, including nursing homes, homeless shelters, prisons, jails and long-term health care facilities.
Phase one makes up about 15 percent of the US population.
Phase two encompasses K-12 teachers, school staff, child care workers, people with underlying conditions that put them at moderately higher risk, public transit workers, those in the food supply system, and those in homeless shelters or group homes, and prison and jail inmates, as well as staffers there. These groups make up about 30 to 35 percent of the population.
Phase three — which covers about 40 to 45 percent of Americans — includes young adults, children and workers in industries such as hotels, banks, higher education, gyms and factories. However, the guidance says immunization of children will depend on safety testing.
All other Americans not included in the first three phases are covered in phase four.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said average, healthy Americans could expect to get their first doses as early as April and through July, he told USA Today.
How much will the vaccines cost?
The federal government, which has a $1.95 billion contract to buy millions of Pfizer-BioNTech doses, as well those from other successful candidates, has promised the shots will be free.
That said, Pfizer-BioNTech has set an initial price at $19.50 a dose, while Moderna, which has a $1.5 billion contract for 100 million doses, will cost taxpayers $25 a dose, Forbes reported.
Two doses three weeks apart are needed for full immunization.
Will a vaccine offer complete protection against COVID-19?
Immunization may keep you from getting severely ill but “won’t necessarily prevent you from getting infected,” Fauci said.
“The issue is that you’re not going to be completely protected against a degree of infection that you might not even notice that you might be able to spread to others,” the top doc said in a virtual chat with the Hastings Center.
“Which is the reason why the message you may have heard me say over the last couple weeks in the media is that getting vaccinated with a highly efficacious vaccine does not mean that you’re going to abandon completely public health measures.”
It will also take time to build up herd immunity, when a large portion of a population becomes immune to a disease, through vaccination — and that’s only if enough people decide to get jabbed.
A poll in August found that 35 percent of respondents said they won’t get a coronavirus vaccine when one becomes available.
But if most of the US is vaccinated by summer and fall, Fauci said we can then look toward getting back to normal.
“Then you can start talking about this umbrella or blanket of protection on society that would diminish dramatically the risk of a person being exposed or even being infected,” he told USA Today. “When so many people are protected, that’s when you get into the real herd immunity.”
How long does it typically take to develop a vaccine?
Outside of the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, vaccines typically take more than 10 years to develop, according to the British health charity Wellcome Trust.
The first two to five years is usually dominated by discovery research, which includes the development of up to 100 potential vaccines, according to the charity.
The preclinical phase then takes about two years to complete, in which about 20 vaccine candidates are moved to the next round.
Phase three is when human trials are conducted and could take between 5 and 9 years as scientists figure out if the vaccine is safe, activates an immune response and protects against the disease.
The final phase, which is seeking regulatory review and approval, can typically take about one to two years.
The race for a COVID-19 vaccine is charging along at warp speed, however, scientists also aren’t starting from scratch, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Past research on severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) vaccines gave drugmakers a leg-up in determining potential approaches when vaccine development started earlier this year, the medical center said.
In the early twentieth century, it took scientists about 19 years to develop an effective vaccine for yellow fever, Business Insider reported.
The chickenpox vaccine took 28 years to develop and the polio vaccine took six years, according to William Petri, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Virginia, writing in The Conversation.
For the measles vaccine, the virus was first isolated in 1954 but an effective immunization — which treated measles, mumps and rubella — didn’t come out until 1971, according to the History of Vaccines, which is linked on the CDC’s website.
The mumps vaccine — which was developed in four years by pharmaceutical company Merck — was the fastest to be approved for human use, according to the Washington Post.
With Post wires