For months, our economic potential has been hampered by the chilling impact of the coronavirus. The hoped-for solutions – widespread testing, effective therapeutics, ubiquitous mask-wearing, enforced social distancing – never took root and the virus has now spread completely out of control in the US.
Two short weeks ago, we woke up to Pfizer’s announcement that their new COVID-19 vaccine looked to be at least 90% effective. The following week we learned that Moderna had a vaccine which was 94% effective. Additional number crunching from Pfizer showed that their vaccine was almost exactly on par with Moderna’s in terms of efficacy. These companies have placed their vaccine candidates in the process for emergency use authorization and approval from the FDA.
These vaccines are triumphs for modern science; do take the time to learn about how these new vaccines work - it is something out of Star Trek. While these vaccines have the power to steer us out of the global pandemic, our optimism needs to be tempered by a few logistical challenges. First, these vaccines need to be stored at extremely cold temperatures, which isn’t currently feasible for much of the developing world. Second, the supply for the vaccines are limited as it takes time to generate and distribute them. If only there were a way to increase our vaccine supply in a simpler way!
As if in direct response to these setbacks, University of Oxford / AstraZeneca announced their vaccine trial results on 11/23. The vaccine is reported at 90% efficacy when taken in 2 steps, a half-dose followed by a full dose. There are a few reasons this candidate could be the best choice on a global rollout. First, the half-dose step-up is advantageous because it increases the total amount of full vaccine series which can be generated (Pfizer and Moderna’s candidates require two full of doses). Second, AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate doesn’t require extreme cold; normal refrigeration units will suffice. Third, this candidate is easier to mass produce at scale. Fourth, this candidate is the least expensive by far – further increasing the potential for widespread adoption. Even at 90% efficacy, that is easily sufficient to create herd-immunity to the contagion.
None of this helps the people who are getting sick today. None of this helps with the current hospitalization and death rates. None of this brings back the jobs which were lost or restores the economy today. The next few months are likely to be rough, with terrible economic and personal burdens on the health care system, individuals, and families. Still, until a few weeks ago – there was only darkness. Now, there are a few growing spots of light.