Tuesday night's US presidential debate was frenetic. At times, President Donald Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden, and moderator Chris Wallace were all speaking at the same time, and the topics shifted rapidly. But the candidates lingered on one point for at least a few minutes: the COVID-19 vaccine, and when, exactly, it will be available.
Trump said that he "spoke to the scientists in charge and they said they will have a vaccine very soon." Very soon, in this case, apparently means in mere weeks. Yet both Moncef Slaoui, PhD, chief adviser for the coronavirus vaccine development program Operation Warp Speed, and Robert Redfield, MD, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are naming a much later date. They both have said that vaccines will most likely be widely available to the American public by mid-2021.
"If you’re asking me when is it going to be generally available to the American public so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life, I think we’re probably looking at third... late second quarter, third quarter 2021," Redfield told the US Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, according to CNBC.
Slaoui told NPR that we may "have enough vaccine to immunise the US population by the middle of 2021." Trump said that they're both wrong.
So... what's right? The Guardian reports that 11 vaccines are currently in phase 3, large-scale efficacy trials — one of the final trials on the path to approval. Jeremy Levin, DPhil, MB, B.Chir, chairman of the global Biotechnology Innovations Organisation, tells Refinery29 via email that it's likely that we'll know whether one or more of them is effective by the end of November or December — but that doesn't mean they'll be available on those dates. He warns that there's a lot more work to do to ensure that they're safe for human use.
First, regulators in each country will need to review and approve the vaccine, a process that Dr Levin says could take until January. He also notes that the manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine to the nation will need to be set up too. The bottom line, he says: "We are unlikely, in the best case, to be able to distribute a safe and effective vaccine broadly until mid-2021."
On Wednesday, the Financial Times reported that Moderna said it wouldn't be applying for emergency approval of its vaccine candidate before the US presidential elections in November, according to Reuters. The CEO also said that they didn't expect to have full approval before spring 2021. The Pfizer CEO, however, has seemingly indicated their vaccine candidate could be ready by October — but a company spokesperson has said the clinical trial wouldn't be completed by then, The New York Times reports.
Dr Levin emphasises that political interference — including political pressure to approve a vaccine ASAP — should be kept to a minimum, or else the government risks undermining public trust, and missing important safety signals that could ultimately cause harm. Some countries have rushed to approved vaccines for limited or early use — a decision that some experts say is extremely risky, The New York Times reports. "Those who oppose any vaccinations will seize on this to try to undermine other vaccination programs such as measles, mumps, rubella, etc. with the potential to cause epidemics of these as less and less people vaccinate," Dr Levin adds.
There's already some pushback from people not willing to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. A poll released by NPR, PBS NewsHour, and Marist in August revealed that more than a third of Americans (35%) are not planning on getting the vaccine. NPR reports that there are significant splits by both education and party on this issue: "Those with university degrees are 19 points more likely to get vaccinated than those without (72% to 53%), and Democrats are 23 points more likely than Republicans (71% to 48%)."
With over 33.8 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide and more than 1 million deaths, people are understandably eager for the development of a working and safe vaccine. And while we're certainly getting closer to having a vaccine, it seems unlikely that we can expect to be lining up for jabs before 2021. So for now, the safest course of action is to wear a mask, wash your hands, stay inside as much as possible, and avoid crowded areas. And, of course, get your flu jab — that's one vaccine that's readily available now.