Ask Dr. Halverson: COVID-19 vaccine progress, promises and reality

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By Dr. Jim Halverson
Bringing the COVID-19 pandemic to an end depends on the development, distribution and administration of a safe and effective vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes CoVID-19. This is an unprecedented challenge to scientists around the world as nearly 8 billion people are at risk from the virus and will need the opportunity to be vaccinated. Here is an update on the current status of the vaccine.
Sixteen candidate vaccines are currently in human clinical trials around the world. The University of Oxford in England has recently begun a phase 3 trial, the last phase before possible approval, if its  vaccine is found to be safe and effective. This trial will last several months. The Beijing Institute of Biotechnology in China and Moderna in the United States will begin phase 3 trials in the next few weeks. The other 13 vaccines are either in phase 1 or phase 2 trials. There are an additional 125 candidate vaccines in preclinical evaluation that have not yet begun human trials.


All of us want to start our “new normal” life after the end of the pandemic. Drs. Anthony Faucci and Deborah Birx , lead physicians on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, have stated that one or more vaccines could be approved by the end of 2020. In my opinion, I believe both are being quite optimistic. Optimism is vitally important from our national leaders. It is important to help us continue our commitment to keep ourselves and others safe. However, vaccine approval does not equate to vaccine being available to be given nationally and globally. 
It is extremely unlikely that you or I will get vaccinated by the end of this year. COVID-19 is a worldwide disease. Our entire world’s population needs access to an effective vaccine. To do this, billions of doses need to be safely produced, safely distributed and safely administered. Fortunately, the World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and multiple other charitable and private organizations have pledged billions of dollars to help this process. Despite this, it will still take many months, at best, to make it available worldwide. Additionally, it is likely that the highest success rate will be achieved with a two-dose series separated by several weeks, so up to 15 billion doses may need to be given, depending upon an individual’s desire to be vaccinated.
There also will be prioritization of who gets the vaccine first. Hospital workers, first responders, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions that put them at high risk will be first. Many of us will appropriately wait our turn.
Vaccines also take time to work. If two doses are required for adequate immunity, it may take two to four months for that immunity to be reached. 
There are many other factors to consider: safe distribution (some of the vaccines in development require temperatures well below freezing to maintain stability), the effectiveness of the vaccine and how often we will need to be revaccinated are but a few. Also, will enough people be willing to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity? To end this pandemic, somewhere between 60 to 70 percent of people in our valley, state, country and, ultimately, the world will need to achieve adequate immunity. If a vaccine is 90% effective, 80% of us will need to agree to be vaccinated. Until then, COVid-19 will continue to be a major threat to our lives, our economy and our well-being. 


This is a marathon. It is best to be properly informed that we will be going through this together for much longer than several more months. Take care of yourselves physically and emotionally every day. Do the same for your family, friends, neighbors and the community we live in. Stay optimistic, stay committed, stay hopeful, stay safe and stay well.


— Dr. Jim Halverson is a longtime Ojai physician who is writing a weekly column on COVID-19 in the Ojai Valley News.

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