For the better part of 2020, the growing shadow of the Coronavirus has spread across every populated country in the world. More than fifty-eight million people have been stricken worldwide. In the United States, more than 12 million have been infected and nearly 260,000 have died. American casualties are the highest in the world. All the while, researchers have been frantically working to create a vaccine. And it is now here.
Moderna and Pfizer along with its German partner BioNTech have each produced vaccines they say will work against the world’s most dangerous pandemic since the Great Influenza, more than a hundred years before. Moderna rates its vaccine at 95 percent effective while Pfizer/BioNTech rates its vaccine at 90 percent. The latest to introduce a vaccine is AstraZeneca. It made its announcement on Monday and rates its vaccine at 90 percent effective.
The FDA must now approve the vaccines, a step considered almost perfunctory in light of already documented testing data and a wintertime spike that is now taxing hospitals and morgues both here and abroad. The FDA meets on December 10th. If the approval process goes as expected, vaccinations could begin in as early as three to four weeks. Those expected to be first in line for shots are workers in high risk group, most likely, doctors and nurses. Distributing the vaccine for large scale immunizations has already been discussed.
“Our plan is to be able to ship vaccines to the immunization sites with 24 hours from the approval,” said Moncef Slaoui, Chief Scientific Advisor, Operation Warp Speed. That would mean, he said, the first vaccinations could occur as early as December 11th or 12th. Each state’s health department would instruct on where to deliver the vaccines. Slaoui made his comments on CNN’s State of the Union broadcast.
Contrasted with other vaccines that have been introduced, the Coronavirus vaccine has surpassed all expectations and records for delivery. Most vaccines have taken several years, even decades from beginning of research to the first shots in the arm. This vaccine was begun just ten months ago at the onset of the virus. It, of course, had the full backing of the U.S. government. “Go for it,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Whatever it costs, don’t worry about it.” The U.S. government underwrote the Pfizer/BioNTech research. Moderna took no federal money.
In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Stephane Bancel, Moderna’s Chief Executive said that the makeup of the virus made the undertaking simpler than many had expected. “This is not a complicated virus,” he said. In fact, from the time China shared the viruses genetic sequence with the world and Moderna researchers came up with a design for an mRNA---messenger RNA---vaccine was two days.
Researchers used mRNA to induce human cells to create a safe viral protein---a spike---which causes the immune system to make antibodies and immune cells that can recognize the spike and counterattack as needed.
Though it is still weeks before the first vaccine is administered in Colorado, it can’t come fast enough. The state’s hospitals are undergoing a rush of COVID-19 patients they haven’t seen since last Spring. In southern Colorado, patients are being moved to larger facilities in Colorado Springs and Denver. On the western slope, hospitals have reached or exhausted their bed space. In other parts of the state, ICU beds are no longer available. In some cases, hospitals are being forced to turn patients away for lack of space. All the while, the toll on medical staff rises to burnout levels
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reports that a flattening of the curve is still out of sight. Beginning the week, CDH had reported nearly 200,000 cases of COVID-19 and 2,355 deaths from the virus. Governor Jared Polis has urged mask wearing across the state, an order that has rankled Weld County law enforcement. An estimated one in 49 Coloradans are currently infected with the Coronavirus.
“The county will not enforce a rule confining individuals to their homes…will not enforce a rule demanding restaurants close their indoor dining areas…will not enforce any rule that forces a business to shut down,” nor will it enforce the wearing of masks or facial coverings, according to a news release from the Weld County Commissioners. The county’s positivity rate for COVID-19 is 16.5 percent, which is more than three times higher than the five percent threshold recommended by the World Health Organization for keeping the virus under control.
Pfizer estimates that it will manufacture 50 million doses of the vaccine before the end of 2020 and 1.3 billion next year. If at least 70 percent of the population receives the two doses that are recommended, officials believe that will create herd immunity as early as May of 2021.
In addition to what is hoped will be an effective vaccine to fight COVID-19, the FDA has also granted emergency authorization for the same antibody treatment given President Trump when he was diagnosed with the coronavirus. The treatment, manufactured by Regeneron, is a combination of two antibodies that seem to work in checking the infection. Those receiving the cocktail will be people over age 12 who have tested positive for COVID-19 and may be at a higher risk for developing a more serious strain of the virus.
The CDC reports that the recent spike in cases of COVID-19 has averaged slightly more than 168,000 people each week. It predicts there could be as many as 16,000 deaths across the nation each week through the middle of December.