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Coronavirus Vaccine Progress – The Challenges That Lie Ahead

A doctor holding a vial of precious COVID vaccine

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across of the globe, and as infection rates and deaths continue to climb, scientists have collectively sought to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine. Recent advances in genetics and technology have fueled these efforts, resulting in some great news in recent days. Two major groups, Pfizer and Moderna, are reporting notably high effectiveness with their coronavirus vaccines, Naturally, this has provided tremendous optimism among scientists as well as policymakers.

While this coronavirus vaccine progress is certainly welcomed, the results of current trials do raise other issues. Both vaccines require specific handling, and the number of individuals who need vaccination is massive. The question is therefore how vaccination plans are expected to proceed given these hurdles. In addition, a degree of public distrust is also present that must also be addressed. While developing a safe and effective vaccine is paramount, getting everyone vaccinated may be just as difficult.

“What would be the worst is a vaccine that’s safe, a vaccine that’s effective, a vaccine that’s distributed, and vaccine systems now able to get vaccines in the arms of people – and people just don’t take it.” – Soumi Saha, Attorney, Pharmacist and VP of Advocacy, Premier Inc.

The Latest Coronavirus Vaccine Progress Update

For many months, pharmaceutical companies and research scientists have been racing to developing an effective coronavirus vaccine. Levering technology against COVID, investigators are employing new techniques to enhance safety and effectiveness. This last week, both Pfizer (with BioNTech) and Moderna announced great safety and efficacy data from early Phase III trials. Pfizer stated its results shows a 90% effectiveness while Moderna is now reporting 94.5% effectiveness. As a result, both companies are already moving forward with vaccination plans in the coming months.

In both cases, the new technique that these companies are using involve the use of messenger RNA (mRNA). It’s notable that no other current vaccine uses this technology to stimulate immune protection against an infection. Other vaccines typically use either small doses of live virus or killed virus to stimulate the immune system. Naturally, this is not ideal with COVID, and it’s also likely to cause greater side effects. Vaccines using mRNA, however, only administer a piece of the virus to stimulate an immune reaction. In theory this is much safer yet may also be just as effective as traditional vaccines.

A line of vials of the COVID vaccine
Coronavirus vaccine progress has been made, but we still need to tackle vaccination rollout.

Both Pfizer and Moderna now report coronavirus vaccine progress using mRNA pieces responsible for producing the virus’ “spikes.” The mRNA is administered in the vaccine, which triggers the body to attack the foreign protein. Thus, when a coronavirus actually infects a person, this same spike protein is recognized by the body’s immune cells. In theory, this would enable a rapid response to exposure preventing infection. Based on the early results, this theory seems accurate. That’s why many are excited about vaccination plans in the near future.

“It was one of the greatest moments in my life and my career. It is absolutely amazing to be able to develop this vaccine and see the ability to prevent symptomatic disease with such high efficacy.” – Tal Zacks, MD, PhD, Chief Medical Officer, Moderna

The Barriers to Vaccination Plans

As mentioned, overcoming any public distrust of a coronavirus vaccine is going to be important. Public education as well as transparency regarding vaccination plans are a must in order to encourage vaccination participation. But this is not the only hurdle. For one, billions of people worldwide must be vaccinated, including hundreds of millions in the U.S. Scaling production is something Moderna and Pfizer recognize as essential. It’s also why many experts claim numerous vaccine types will be needed. This is why including logistics as part of any coronavirus vaccine progress is essential in order to save lives.

Overall, it appears thus far that Moderna’s formulation may be easier with which to work. Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored at extremely cold temperatures (-75 degrees Celsius). Doctor’s offices and pharmacies do not typically have such freezers. In contrast, Moderna’s vaccine can be stored at -20 degrees Celsius, which is more feasible. It can also be stored up to 30 days at this temperature while Pfizer’s product is good for 10 days at best. While Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine progress includes efforts to eventually make a powder form, this will come later. Both companies for the upcoming months are pursuing vaccination plans using only liquid vials.

Other barriers to coronavirus vaccination involve healthcare workers. Nurses will be needed to administer these vaccines, and currently, there is a notable nursing shortage. It is expected that only 6 vaccines can be given per hour by a nurse. This will require that they be trained about defrosting, diluting and administering the drug as well as patient education highlights. Also, vaccination plans for both drugs require a second dosing weeks later. Tracking this information will be a challenge as well as higher numbers of patients are managed. These are all important coronavirus vaccine progress issues that must be addressed sooner rather than later.

“There has always been skepticism about mRNA — it’s brand new and would it work? What we saw in the trials is there was no real safety concern, and the efficacy is quite impressive. We saw nearly identical results [with Pfizer and Moderna] and it almost really validates the mRNA platform.” – Anthony Fauci, M.D., Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease

Vaccinations Plans for the Coming Months

With such promising results being released, experts are hopeful that vaccinations may soon begin to roll out. Dr. Anthony Fauci has suggested that some vaccinations will begin to be administered by years’ end. This will require FDA approval, peer-reviewed analysis, and more extensive safety data. But if these vaccination plans move forward, high-risk individuals will be enrolled in the early program. This will include healthcare workers, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions. In terms of the rest of the population, routine vaccination will likely occur in early spring into the summer months. There is certainly cause for hope and excitement given the coronavirus vaccine progress reported. But at the same time, much work must be done to ensure such a rollout goes smoothly and efficiently.


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