Our colleague Carl Zimmer, who covers science for The Times, told us that this was the first significant sign that a coronavirus vaccine could actually work. “Up until now, we’ve seen promising hints,” he told us.
The technology behind the vaccine, which requires two doses, has not previously been approved for use in humans. It takes genetic material called messenger RNA and injects it into muscle cells. Those cells then build a protein that is also found on the surface of the coronavirus, which stimulates the immune system to hunt down those proteins in the actual virus.
The Food and Drug Administration had told pharmaceutical companies that for vaccines to be approved, they would only need to be at least 50 percent effective. A 90 percent success rate would offering a level of protection similar to childhood vaccines for diseases such as measles.
Still, scientists cautioned against hyping early results until long-term safety and efficacy data come in, and no one knows how long the vaccine’s protection might last. Also, the sparse details Pfizer released today were delivered in a news conference, not a peer-reviewed medical journal.
“Even so, nobody knew if a vaccine against a coronavirus was going to work at all, and this is incredibly encouraging,” Carl said.
What happens next?
A possible timeline for the vaccine, Carl said, could look something like this: At the end of this month, Pfizer and BioNTech may apply for emergency use authorization. It will probably take a few weeks for the F.D.A. to make a decision. If authorized, we may see the first few million doses of the vaccine given out at the beginning of January to at-risk people like health care workers.
Other vaccines like Moderna’s, which uses similar technology to Pfizer’s, may soon join the party, adding to the overall supply. If all goes well, everyone who wants a vaccine should be able to get one by summer, Carl said.
But first, we have to get through winter, which is looking increasingly dark as cases, hospitalizations and deaths soar.
“This winter is going to be rough, and vaccines aren’t going to help us,” Carl said. “People still need to be wearing masks and social distancing.”
The country is averaging more than 110,000 cases per day, hospitalizations have nearly doubled since mid-September, and 29 states have set weekly case records. The United States surpassed 10 million cases over the weekend, more than any other country, and a shocking one in 441 Americans have tested positive for the virus just in the last week.
Another panel pick: Dr. Rick Bright, a former top vaccine official in the Trump administration, who was ousted as the head of a federal medical research agency. Dr. Bright submitted a whistle-blower complaint to Congress in May and told lawmakers that officials in the government had failed to heed his warnings about acquiring masks and other supplies.