It has been a little over 8 months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US.
Unfortunately, the U.S. is experiencing its third wave of infections and has reached a grim milestone with over 250,000 lives lost to the pandemic.
However, after months of research and the push for creating a vaccine, there is a silver lining!
Pfizer, an American pharmaceutical corporation, along with its partner, Germany-based BioNTech, reported on November 7 that the vaccine they have been working on is nearly 95 percent effective. This week, Moderna, another vaccine maker in Boston, Massachusetts, announced their vaccine has also shown 94% effectiveness.
Meanwhile, the U.S FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) has approved the very first at-home test kit. Users simply take a swab, insert it in a test unit, and within 30 minutes, they will know whether they are COVID positive. This is a huge improvement over waiting in long lines or for 3-5 days for the result, and earlier home test-kits which required sending in the sample.
Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna vaccine are based on messenger RNA (mRNA) and when approved, will become the very first mRNA-based vaccines.
How do mRNA vaccines work? We read here that the COVID-19 virus has spikes. The virus uses these spike proteins to infect human cells. It then exploits the cell's resources to make copies of itself and multiplies within the host.
The mRNA vaccines mimic the proteins in the spike and when injected into the human body trigger the production of antibodies to fight off the infection. Should the human body be attacked by a live virus later, these antibodies will spring to the defense.
The final stage of the Pfizer vaccine trial was conducted on nearly 44,000 participants, half of whom received the two doses of the vaccine while the other half were injected with salt water (this is called a placebo). The tests are blinded which means no one, except an independent board of experts, knew whether a participant was given a vaccine or a placebo.
Of the 170 participants who came down with COVID-19 later, 162 had received the placebo, and 9 had received the vaccine -- a 95% success rate! The vaccine performed well in participants above the age of 65 which is encouraging.
In Moderna's case, 95 participants came down with COVID-19 of whom five had received the vaccine and the others had received placebo (saltwater) shots. And in both cases, those who received the vaccines complained only of mild fatigue and headache after the second dose.
Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have signed on to the U.S Government's efforts to speed up vaccine distribution called Operation Warp Speed.
The next steps would be to apply for FDA approval and then produce enough doses. Of the 50 million doses that Pfizer hopes to produce by year-end, only half will be available in the U.S (enough for 12.5 million people).
Distribution of the vaccine also poses challenges. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored in Arctic-like temperatures of minus 70 Celsius (-94F); otherwise, the genetic material found in the vaccine will fall apart. Moderna is better and needs to be stored at minus 20 Celsius (-4F). This means getting these vaccines to rural and poor areas of the world will be complicated by the lack of proper refrigeration capabilities.
The first vaccines will be distributed to those who are at risk and the essential workers, and it might be later in 2021 when they will be available to the general public. Despite the challenges, producing a vaccine within a year compared to the usual development cycle of 2-3 years is an achievement to be celebrated!
Sources: NYTimes, BBC, NPR, AlJazeera