For COVID-19, vaccine offers light at the end of a dark winter
Our View: Pfizer findings are from an early analysis, and much more needs to be learned about the vaccine, including how long it remains effective.
During this agonizing period, says Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s public health school, “We all need to keep two seemingly contradictory facts in mind: 1. We are entering the hardest days of the pandemic. The next two months will see a lot of infections and deaths. 2. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Today, that light got a bit brighter.”
Jha was referring to Monday's report that a new vaccine, being developed by Pfizer Inc. and the German firm BioNTech, is showing a better than expected 90% success rate for preventing COVID-19.
240,000 Americans lost so far
The findings are from early analysis of a clinical trial involving 43,538 volunteers, and much more needs to be learned about the new vaccine, including how long it remains effective. Even so, the stunningly good news was an elixir for a world that has lost nearly 1.3 million people to the pandemic, including almost 240,000 in the United States.
Now, with a fall surge of coronavirus spiking across the USA, the goal needs to be to save as many lives as possible until science can come to the rescue in the form of vaccinations and better treatments. Beyond that, a public information campaign will be needed to convince a skeptical public that any approved vaccines are indeed safe and effective.
"We are entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic ... leading to increasing mortality," Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, wrote in an internal report this month.
The United States is averaging more than 100,000 new infections and nearly 1,000 deaths every day. And the trend line is worsening with fears that with the upcoming holidays and cold weather, more people will congregate inside where the virus can easily spread.
'Can't run away from data'
"You can’t run away from the data," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, told CNN on Monday. "It's real."
If the Pfizer vaccine, one of several in clinical trials, gets emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration, millions of doses might be available by the end of the year. But it would likely be well into next year before it is widely distributed to the American public. Enormous logistical challenges remain, including distributing doses that must be stored at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Already there are concerns about adequate numbers of deep freezers and a shortage of dry ice.
President-elect Joe Biden is promising to reverse an era of botched crisis management under Donald Trump. The incoming administration is gearing up to marshal federal resources to generate more testing, personal protective equipment and contract tracing; to lower infection and death rates; and to create conditions for the economy to finally recover while the vaccine is rolled out.
Biden moved quickly to underscore that pledge by naming a coronavirus advisory board Monday, filled with leading scientists and medical professionals. He urged Americans to remain vigilant against the virus and wear face coverings, displaying the kind of calm assuredness that has been lacking under Trump.
White House election night party
But Biden won't be president until Jan. 20. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is struggling to even control the virus within the White House, where there have been six new infections, according to The New York Times, including chief of staff Mark Meadows. Three more tested positive after a White House election party, among them retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Trump could play a useful role by throwing his support behind Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's desire to pass a slim COVID-19 relief plan during the lame-duck session. Instead, the president has been sulking that the promising vaccine news didn't emerge until after Election Day.
Strong federal leadership, for the moment, remains on the sidelines. Americans will largely have to fend for themselves in recognizing growing risks as winter approaches and taking precautions that have worked in many other countries absent a vaccine: hygiene, wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding crowds or congregating indoors.
If America can just get through these next several months, brighter days lie ahead.