The Promise of the Vaccine

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This past Wednesday, there were 3,157 COVID-19 deaths reported across the U.S.—an all-time high since the pandemic began. Wednesday’s death toll surpassed the number of people killed in the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), said the next few months of the COVID-19 pandemic will be among “the most difficult in the public health history of this nation.”

On Dec. 2, Redfield spoke at an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and pointed out that about 90 percent of hospitals in the country are currently in “hot zones and the red zones. So we are at a very critical time right now about being able to maintain the resilience of our health-care system. The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times.”

A very sobering milestone and a dire prediction from one of the country’s leading health care officials. But the past few weeks have also brought us some very positive news. It seems there is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and unlike a lot of things in 2020, it’s not a train heading our way. That bright and very hopeful light is the long awaited vaccine for COVID-19.

Two companies, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, have completed their vaccine trials and are seeking an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Trial results indicate that both vaccines are approximately 95 percent effective at preventing illness, including severe cases. Many vaccine researchers and epidemiologists were expecting a vaccine with a 50 percent to 70 percent efficacy rate, so the 95 number is good news indeed.

The Science Behind the Vaccines

Both vaccines use new mRNA technology. No U.S.-licensed vaccine has ever used this technique but apparently researchers have been studying it for decades. CNN’s Andrea Kane breaks down the science behind the new vaccines. “The way these mRNA vaccines work is that they give our body the instructions, in the form of messenger RNA, for making a little piece of this particular coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)—specifically the spike protein. When our body gets these instructions, it starts producing the spike protein. That in turn triggers our immune system, which recognizes the spike protein as ‘foreign,’ to make antibodies against it. So when we get infected with the real virus, our body is already prepared to fight it.”

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots—one to prime the body and then a few weeks later the second shot to boost the response.

The FDA has scheduled a meeting of its vaccine advisers—the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee—for December 10 to consider emergency use authorization for Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine, and another meeting on December 17 to discuss Moderna's vaccine.

Is the Vaccine Safe?

As part of his Coronavirus in Context video series, Dr. John Whyte, WebMD’s chief medical officer, sat down with Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, who is the president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. The two doctors discussed the safety and the efficacy of the vaccine as well as what the process has been for vaccine development. Click on the video below to learn more.

What Does it Feel Like to Get the Vaccine?

There are two questions everyone wants answered about the vaccine: is it safe and what are the side effects from getting the shot. Yasir Batalvi, a 24-year-old recent college graduate living in the Boston area signed up for the Moderna vaccine trial. Here’s what he told CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He said he was a bit nervous rolling up his sleeve, especially when he was given a 22-page consent form to sign. But he said he felt like he was doing a public service.

"The actual injection felt, at first, just like a flu shot, which is basically just a little pinch in the side of your arm," Batalvi said. "Once I left the hospital, that evening, the stiffness got a little bit worse. It was definitely manageable, but you kind of don't really feel like moving your arm too far above your shoulder. But the side effects are pretty localized. I mean, it's just in the muscle in your arm. And that's about it. It doesn't really affect anything else and you feel fine."

"I actually had some pretty significant symptoms after I got the second dose. Once I got the second dose, I was fine while I was in the hospital. But that evening was rough. I mean, I developed a low-grade fever, and fatigue and chills," Batalvi said. He said he was out for that day and evening, but he "felt ready to go by the next morning."

To find out more about Batalvi’s vaccine experience, click on the video below.

When Can I Get a Vaccine?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices has voted to recommend that 21 million frontline health care workers and support staff and 3 million residents of long-term care facilities who have been hardest hit by the pandemic will be in the first group to get the vaccine. States are preparing to receive their first vaccine shipments as soon as mid-December, if the Food and Drug Administration approves an application for emergency use of a vaccine developed by Pfizer.

Here’s what The New York Times wrote about how the rest of the vaccine will be distributed. “The CDC committee hinted last week that it would recommend essential workers be next in line. About 87 million Americans work in food and agriculture, manufacturing, law enforcement, education, transportation, corrections, emergency response and other sectors. They are at increased risk of exposure to the virus because their jobs preclude them from working from home. And these workers are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, populations that have been hit especially hard by the virus.

“Individual states may decide to include in this group employees of industries that have been particularly affected by the virus. Arkansas, for example, has proposed including workers in its large poultry industry, while Colorado wants to include ski industry workers who live in congregate housing.

“After essential workers, the priority groups likely to be recommended by the CDC committee are adults with medical conditions that put them at high risk of coronavirus infection, and people over 65. But again, some states might diverge to an extent, choosing, for example, to vaccinate residents over 75 before some types of essential workers. All other adults would follow. The vaccine has not yet been thoroughly studied in children, so they would not be eligible yet.”

I will end with this hopeful prediction from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading epidemiologist in the U.S. who has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. On Thursday, President-elect Joe Biden asked Dr. Fauci, to become his chief medical adviser and to be a part of his COVID-19 team. "By the time we get to April, they will have likely taken care of the high priority [group]. And then the general population of normal, healthy young men or women, 30, 40 years old, no underlying health conditions, can walk into a CVS or a Walgreens and get vaccinated," Dr. Fauci said.

Click on the video below to hear Dr. Fauci’s conversation with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

                                 Read More About the Vaccine

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