We’ll need more than one vaccine to beat the pandemic

Close-up photograph of a gloved hand holding a tiny bottle of clear liquid.

Enlarge / A medical worker holds a bottle of a candidate COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University that is being tested in a trial in Soweto, South Africa. (credit: Getty | Gallo Images)

On Monday, a press release from the transnational pharmaceutical company Pfizer dropped a rare spark of hope into the ongoing misery of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, new infections have hit an all-time high in the United States, and, yes, cities and states around the world are walking back their reopenings. But Pfizer says it has results from a massive clinical trial showing that its vaccine against the disease works, and works well. The release touted “a vaccine efficacy rate above 90 percent,” and it announced the company’s intention to seek from the US Food and Drug Administration an authorization to start giving people shots. The company’s ready to make 50 million doses this year and 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

That’s an ember of hope, but it’s sitting under a bucket of cold water, ready to pour. The Pfizer vaccine is finicky—hard to make, transport, and deliver. Because of desperate need, it’s in short supply even before it becomes available—1.3 billion doses is several billion short of what the world needs. The press release wasn’t peer-reviewed science, and it lacked critical details about how the vaccine works and on whom. Even the simple fact of this vaccine’s existence, some analysts have argued, might jeopardize the testing and success of potentially better vaccines down the line, a case of the imperfect being the enemy of the good.

Before the ember dies out completely, here’s a theory: no. The Pfizer vaccine’s imperfections make it a perfect prime mover, because if it works as well as the company says, it’ll help people now and require research into more, better, different vaccines for later. All the things nobody knows about the Pfizer vaccine mean that the door is wide open. “Whether its effects are durable, whether it’s effective in the elderly, whether it has safety issues, the cold chain issues, the ability to have access,” says Wayne Koff, president and CEO of the nonprofit Human Vaccines Project, “all that points to the need for a number of vaccines.”

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