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What will it take to get a COVID-19 vaccine ready by November?

Posted at 2:47 PM, Sep 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-22 14:47:09-04

While scientists work to come up with a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, doctors across the country are watching closely. Many are helping guide their patients in making an informed decision about getting a vaccine.

"This was indeed a surprise to see that there would vaccines available by the 1st of November. It’s clearly an aspirational goal, because we all would like to see a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible, but I think testing vaccines to make sure they’re safe and effective is of paramount importance," said Dr. Bali Pulendran, a microbiology and immunology professor at Stanford University.

Dr. Pulendran says the process of developing a vaccine involves numerous steps, and scientists are getting closer to the end. Still, it's hard to put an end date on the third and final phase of a vaccine trial. This last phase determines whether the vaccine actually works.

"The way in which you can assess whether a vaccine works is to see how many of these people acquire the disease or become infected with COVID at some period of time," explained Dr. Pulendran.

Phase three divides the trial participants into two groups. One group is given the vaccine, and the other is given a placebo.

"And then, you calculate the efficacy based on those numbers. So, if there were 200 people affected in the placebo group but there were only 100 people who were infected in the vaccinated group, then the efficacy is 50 percent" said Dr. Pulendran.

The third phase is hard to time, as it depends on how quickly some of the trial participants become infected. If they live in areas where COVID-19 infection rates are higher, the phase will be completed faster.

But there are some other ways to speed up the vaccine trial.

Dr. Darria Long, an emergency room physician and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee-Erlanger, says one way is by doing two of the phases at the same time. Another way is if officials prepare for the manufacturing and logistics side of producing the vaccine during the third phase of the trial.

"This is what we see the CDC saying is to get ready on the manufacturing and logistics side because even if you come up with the perfect target drug, making sure you can manufacture hundreds of millions and that you have the little glass vials that can keep it at the right temperature, those are all things that can be hang-ups,” said Dr. Long. “So, they're wanting to expedite that process, because the last thing you want is to say is we have the vaccine, but we can’t get it to people.”

Dr. Long is already answering her patients' questions as news of a possible COVID-19 vaccine continues to be publicized.

"I do think a lot of people are wondering about this vaccine and it runs the gamut. There are those that say they really want the vaccine because they see it as this gateway to getting back to life as we know it," said Dr. Long.

There are also those who are really concerned about the efficacy and safety of a COVID-19 vaccine. Doctors say a key piece in evaluating a vaccine when it does come out is the data surrounding it.

"The data that comes out in the public domain: is a particular vaccine efficacious? How effective is it what is the efficacy data? Is a particular vaccine safe? What are the side reactions? And they should talk with their physicians to ask each question. Ask doctors, ‘Could you tell me what the safety part of this vaccine is?" recommended Dr. Pulendran.

And above all, doctors and scientists hope politics will stay out of the development of a COVID-19 vaccine in order to ease any concerns or hopes for a vaccine to be available as soon as possible.