During Thursday night’s final presidential debate before the election, President Trump said a coronavirus vaccine will be announced within weeks.
Trump mentioned Pfizer by name, which along with Johnson & Johnson and Moderna is just one of several companies working on a vaccine in the U.S.
Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, who is serving as principal investigator for Pfizer’s vaccine clinical trials, says there’s no way to know for sure when its vaccine will be available, but researchers hope the trial results will be in by November.
If the results show Pfizer’s vaccine is safe and effective, it will be sent to the Food and Drug Administration for review, a process that usually takes two to four weeks, Ogbuagu says. If the FDA decides to issue emergency use authorization, the vaccine will go to the highest-risk individuals first — health care workers, the elderly, those with preexisting conditions — because there will be limited doses available initially.
“So I think that the most optimistic expectations around the vaccine availability would be the first quarter of 2021,” Ogbuagu says.
If Pfizer’s vaccine proves to be safe and effective, there’s still the problem of distribution. Concerns have surfaced about Pfizer’s cold chain vaccine because it has to be kept in freezers at roughly negative 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ogbuagu says the federal government has started working with large pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens to ensure they have the capability to safely store the vaccine. Pfizer has also built some 350 large storage freezers to keep doses cold prior to distribution.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has said that people who don't take the vaccine will become a “weak link” that allows the coronavirus to spread. Ogbuagu says distrust in a vaccine remains a concern, and it’s rooted in historical and political factors.
“The data remains very concerning that less than half of Americans will accept the vaccine,” he says. “And if you break it down by racial lines, less than four out of 10 Blacks, for example, would accept a complete vaccine if it becomes available.”
Ogbuagu says people refusing to take the vaccine threatens our ability to achieve herd immunity, which “should be the way that we start to curb and get past this epidemic.”
“What it also means would be that among unvaccinated populations, there could be vulnerable pockets of the community where disease could continue to spread even after a vaccine becomes available,” he says. “So efforts really have to be ramped up early to improve vaccine acceptance rates.”
Once a vaccine is widely available and in use, scientists hope people can stop wearing face masks to stop the spread of the virus, Ogbuagu says. But that all depends on the efficacy of a potential vaccine.
“If we have a low efficacy vaccine where a certain proportion of people who get the vaccine will not be protected against the disease, that would be a whole different calculation,” he says. “But if we have a very effective vaccine that's taken up by many individuals and we start to see case counts go down significantly, yes, then we may return back to normal.”
This segment aired on October 23, 2020.