Pfizer says COVID-19 vaccine is looking 90% effective

This October 2020 photo provided by Pfizer shows part of a "freezer farm," a football field-sized facility for storing finished COVID-19 vaccines, under construction in Kalamazoo, Mich. Pfizer’s experimental vaccine requires ultracold storage, at about -70°C, so as they are made, the vaccines are being stored in special freezers until the Food and Drug Administration approves use and the vaccines can be distributed. (Jeremy Davidson/Pfizer via AP)

The following editorial first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Finally ... some much-needed good news in the battle against the coronavirus.

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. announced Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine showed an astounding 90% effectiveness rate in early test results and that initial doses — if approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration later this month — could be available by the end of the year.

It seems everyone welcomed the news, from health officials to politicians to Wall Street, where the markets soared.

Health officials have been saying for some time that a vaccine could be approved by year’s end, but the reported effectiveness caught everyone by surprise. Most experts had hoped for a vaccine that might be 60% effective, so the early results from Pfizer are remarkable. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said the results suggesting 90% effectiveness are “just extraordinary.”

Pfizer, which did not join the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed but instead opted to invest $2 billion of its own money in testing and expanded manufacturing capacity, did sign a $1.95 billion government contract to supply 100 million doses to the U.S.

While all of this is good news in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, it must also be tempered with some unpleasant realities. Confirmed cases are climbing daily throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. The U.S. now has more than 10 million confirmed cases, highest in the world, and nearly 240,000 deaths reported.

A vaccine, while holding the promise most have been waiting for, will not be an immediate end to the pandemic. It’s estimated that about 50 million doses will be available from Pfizer initially, and that will cover 25 million people since two doses are required per person. The first to be inoculated will likely be health care workers and at-risk populations.

In the meantime, confirmed cases nationally — already running at record rates of more than 100,000 per day — will continue to rise, and tens of thousands more deaths are expected in the coming months as cold weather moves in and people spend more time indoors.

The vaccine will not end the disease because people can continue to be infected in the interim period. Officials estimate it could take as long as a year to effectively inoculate the majority of the U.S. population.

And there will be major distribution issues to work out because of the vaccine’s super-cold storage requirements. It needs to be kept at a temperature of minus 94 degrees, and that could severely limit its availability to rural areas of the U.S. or poor countries with limited resources.

The development of an effective vaccine could be the turning point the world has been waiting for in the fight to control COVID-19. But we are still a long way from making it widely available. The best course of action in the meantime is the same advice health officials have been offering for months — wear a mask (to protect you and others), practice social distancing and wash your hands frequently.

The end to the pandemic is not yet in sight, but there’s hope.