COVID-19 Vaccine Updates

A rendition of COVID-19 virus particles. (Courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.)
Marissa Schimpf
December 17, 2020

Since early November, a COVID-19 vaccine has appeared to be closer than ever to the American population. In Lamplighter’s October, 2020 issue, I discussed basic information about COVID-19 and the various phases of testing required to allow for large-scale use of a vaccine. Unresolved questions from my previous article have been gradually answered as biotechnology companies gather data from various COVID-19 vaccine trials.

 On November 18, American pharmaceutical corporation, Pfizer, announced the completion of phase three of testing, which began in late July and assessed the effects of the vaccine on approximately 43,000 people. Pfizer stated that beginning twenty-eight days after test subjects received their first dose, only eight of those injected with the vaccine contracted COVID-19. The company estimates that the vaccine’s efficacy is around 95%, exceeding the expectations of many, although only time will tell if this number is accurate. Additionally, good news comes from Moderna, a biotech company based in Massachusetts, regarding their third phase of testing. Moderna’s phase three trials began on July 27, and so far, the vaccine proves around 94.5% effective.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are considered mRNA vaccines, which differ from the viral vector vaccines undergoing phase three testing in China, Russia, and England. An mRNA vaccine injects a part of the genetic material of COVID-19 into the patient’s cells, allowing the immune system to partially experience the virus. In concept, the function of a mRNA vaccine is unambiguous: it encodes the synthesis of the COVID-19 virus’ “spike” protein, prompting the body’s cells to develop an immune response and produce antibodies to protect against infection. Currently, however, there are no licenced mRNA vaccines in the United States. Additionally, mRNA vaccines must be kept quite cold: Pfizer’s vaccine has ideal refrigeration at -70ºC, while Moderna’s is around -20ºC. Pfizer has stated that its vaccine’s somewhat inconvenient temperature requirements will not negatively impact its widespread distribution. Recently, Moderna and Pfizer announced that they will submit their vaccine candidates to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization. 

In regards to foreign COVID-19 vaccine information, Chinese, Russian, and British vaccines have been approved for phase three testing. Chinese company CanSino Biologics has formulated a vaccine that, starting in June of 2020, could be used on the Chinese military. CanSino began official phase three trials in other countries such as Pakistan and Russia in August. Additionally, just two days after Pfizer, the Russian Gamaleya Research Institute released early vaccine data and announced that its vaccine is 92% effective thus far. These results were measured only three weeks after participants took the first dose of the vaccine, so follow-up data will be important in validating its true efficacy. Some say that the Gamaleya Research Institute revealed these numbers so early in their trials due to competition with American vaccine companies, but this is only speculation. Finally, the British pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, is working with Oxford University to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, currently in combined phase two and three testings. Data concerning this vaccine have not yet been disclosed, but hopefully, more information will be available by the end of the year. 

As 2021 approaches, Operation Warp Speed, a U.S.-government-initiated partnership that has allocated billions of dollars to various vaccine companies, aims to purchase and deliver 300 million vaccines around the country by early 2021. States vary in their vaccination distribution plans, but commonalities include prioritizing certain high-risk populations and identifying vaccination distribution networks. 

Over the next few months, more information is bound to be released about both domestic and international vaccines, and we can only hope that the optimistic results being seen currently are sustainable.

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