Pfizer’s Vaccine: Can We Trust It?

With the second wave of the coronavirus sweeping across the world, Pfizer Inc.’s promising new vaccine utilizes technology previously unheard of in mass human vaccinations.

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By Lauren Chin

The second wave of the coronavirus has arrived. Countries in Europe are seeing a rapid increase in hospitalizations and deaths: France reports that 95 percent of their intensive care units are populated by COVID-19 patients, while scientists in Germany announce record-high infection rates. Similarly, states within the U.S. are experiencing their highest number of daily cases so far, with New York’s daily count rising to nearly 5,000 cases, a number only seen once before during the first wave in March. With no coronavirus vaccine available, everyone is watching worriedly as the numbers grow at alarming rates.

But a new beacon of hope has arrived in the form of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc.’s coronavirus vaccine announcement in mid-November. In collaboration with the German drug manufacturing company BioNTech, Pfizer has publicized that their two-dose vaccine rendered 90 percent effective against the coronavirus during their preliminary trials. Pfizer and BioNTech updated their results just last Wednesday with a new efficacy rate of 95 percent. While details are sparse, an outside panel of experts confirmed the remarkably high success rate of the vaccine in addition to a lack of serious safety concerns.

The Pfizer vaccine utilizes a new groundbreaking technology used with messenger RNA (mRNA), which has never been approved for human vaccinations before. This is largely because synthetic RNA is extremely vulnerable to the body’s natural defenses, meaning that it has a high probability of being attacked and destroyed before reaching its target cells, which in turn could lead to a risky, unwanted immune response in some patients. Despite these challenges, most of the front-runners in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine are attempting to utilize this technology. Rather than using dead or weakened viral particles to provoke an immune response, the mRNA trains the immune system to target a specific protein found on the surface of COVID-19 viruses. By effectively neutralizing this spike-shaped surface protein, people will not become infected with the virus.

Pfizer and BioNTech state that their vaccine’s efficacy is consistent across all ages, races, and ethnicities. The most serious recorded side effects include fatigue (exhibited by 3.7 percent of subjects) and headaches (two percent of subjects) after the second dose. What is perhaps most impressive about this vaccine is the level of protection it offers to the elderly. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, explained, “We know from the influenza vaccine that it’s very difficult to achieve protection in this age group with a vaccine.” This makes this feat quite remarkable.

Pfizer has announced that a more detailed analysis of their data collected over the past two months will be disclosed to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as soon as possible. Despite these gains, scientists have cautioned not to celebrate these early results before all data has been collected, especially since it remains unknown how long the vaccine’s protection will last and if a vaccinated person can still transmit the virus.

Despite these unanswered questions, the study’s preliminary findings indicate that Pfizer’s vaccine may have the potential to transform COVID-19’s threat level to that of the common cold. Researchers predict that once the vaccine has reached certified safety and efficacy levels, it will become a “staple” vaccine, such as the annual flu shot. Pfizer’s vaccine will not necessarily immunize everyone entirely from the virus, but it will be useful for many people and will reduce the severity of COVID-19 in those infected.

Pfizer plans to request emergency authorization of their vaccine by the FDA later this month. In addition, Pfizer chief executive officer Albert Bourla confirmed that they will follow participants for two years to analyze the protection’s durability and immunogenicity. If the FDA approves the vaccine, Pfizer states that they can generate about 50 million doses by the end of 2020, half of which will go to the U.S. Federal health officials have noted that the first doses of the vaccine will be distributed to high-risk exposure groups, like health care workers, as well as the most vulnerable groups, such as the elderly.

While Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine has not yet been officially approved, it represents a small victory in the frenzied worldwide race for answers. The promising discovery of a vaccine created with modern technology in a time of chaos and uncertainty gives the world hope for a near future free of the pandemic.