USA TODAY’s experts say securing a COVID-19 vaccine in record time could be easy, but distributing it won’t be

Science is making incredible progress toward a COVID-19 vaccine, but as approval nears – potentially as early as December – worry has shifted to the complexity of distribution.

chart, sunburst chart: Vaccine Pannel promo

© Javier Zarracina
Vaccine Pannel promo

Overall, hopefulness was the theme of USA TODAY’s vaccine panel this month. After five months, the panel’s countdown clock to a widely available vaccine skipped forward another hour, to 8 a.m. 

Companies and observers generally expect at least one COVID-19 candidate vaccine soon will receive a regulatory thumbs up. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, joined the chorus Tuesday when he told NPR he was “guardedly optimistic” one or more of the candidates will be judged safe and effective by the end of the year.

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But reality is setting in about how hard it will be to get an approved vaccine into the arms of everyone who wants it – twice.

“The initial vaccine supply and the distribution and vaccination programs will not live up to the public’s desire for immediate, widespread access to a safe and effective vaccine,” said Dr. Kelly Moore, associate director of immunization education at the Immunization Action Coalition.

Health care workers and first responders are likely to be prioritized for an approved vaccine, followed by high-risk elderly.

Even those limited groups account for as many as 150 million Americans, said Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Unless three vaccines win approval simultaneously, it’s unlikely enough doses will be available right away. 

The two leading vaccine candidates have to be delivered in different ways, adding to the difficulty of getting the right vaccine into the right person. Both require two doses, but the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shots are given 21 days apart, while Moderna’s second shot is delivered at 28 days.

Moderna’s vaccine must be kept frozen. Pfizer’s has to be kept even colder – at minus-78 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of dry ice – meaning it needs different shipping and storing protocols.

Another variable is whether the vaccines will be equally effective in groups such as the elderly. Studies underway may show one vaccine is more effective than another among high-risk populations, adding even more complexity.

“It’s going to be hard,” Offit said, to get the right vaccine into the right person’s arm at the right time. And then to do it again with a second dose.

Making progress

For the past five months, USA TODAY has asked a dozen or more experts in all aspects of vaccine development to gauge the progress on a COVID-19 vaccine.

We asked panel members to place vaccine development on a 12-hour clock, on which midnight, the starting point, is the moment in early January when the world became aware of the virus known as SARS-CoV-2, and noon is the time a vaccine will become widely available.

In late June, panelists put the time at 4 a.m., one-third

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Getting Vaccine Doubters to Roll Up Their Sleeves Won’t Be Easy

(Bloomberg) — Eddie Rice is a believer in vaccines. The Melbourne locksmith has received jabs in the past and understands that they go through rigorous testing before they’re rolled out. This time, as researchers sprint ahead with potential shots to protect the world against Covid-19, he’s not so sure.


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“This is a pretty unique one, just because it’s going to be so quick,” said Rice, 29. “I don’t know enough of the science to know 100% that it’s safe.”

Governments and drugmakers have long faced skepticism, and even hostility, from a small but vocal group of anti-vaccination campaigners. In the battle against the coronavirus, they may also run into reluctance from a broader swath of the population — people like Rice who would normally be on board.

Fading trust in governments, political interference and the dash to create a shot in record time are sowing doubts. Temporary halts to studies because of unexplained illnesses in volunteers — a part of vaccine development that doesn’t usually make headlines — add to the anxiety. These misgivings could hobble the high-stakes quest to slow a pathogen that’s killed 1.1 million people.

Assuming immunizations can be successfully developed, mass produced and deployed, vaccine advocates will need to convince enough people the shots are key to ending the crisis. In a survey of 20,000 people conducted over the summer, more than a quarter of respondents said they wouldn’t get a Covid shot. Russia, Poland, Hungary and France had the lowest support, the World Economic Forum and Ipsos study showed.

a person wearing a mask: Post-Registration Trial of RDIF's 'Sputnik V' COVID-19 Vaccine

© Bloomberg
Post-Registration Trial of RDIF’s ‘Sputnik V’ COVID-19 Vaccine

The effort to overcome that sentiment will start with health workers. Medical staff are at heightened risk of catching the virus and spreading it to others, and will likely be among the first to get immunized. Any worries they have about the quality of a vaccine could hamper wider acceptance.

Nor should their support be taken for granted. Medical workers would be careful not to damage the trust they’ve earned by promoting a product they don’t have faith in, said Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, a union in the U.K. representing nurses, paramedics and others in the field.

“If health-care workers are going to be expected to advocate for the vaccine, then their natural concerns will have to be addressed in advance,” she said. “It’s not going to help with take-up if you go to have your jab and the person who gives it to you isn’t able to say reassuring things.”

A study in Hong Kong earlier this year found that only 63% of nurses expressed a willingness to get a potential Covid shot. It cited uncertainty over effectiveness, side effects and how long protection would last. Support was higher as cases surged, but slipped as infections ebbed, according to researchers including Kin On Kwok, an epidemiologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

If less than two thirds of nurses during an outbreak intend to get immunized, “we anticipate that

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