Moyers on Democracy

Unsanitized: Vaccine News Should Make People More Cautious of COVID

Plus, Biden kicks off his task force.

Unsanitized: Vaccine News Should Make People More Cautious of COVID

Pfizer's corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Unsanitized is a project of The American Prospect.

First Response

This is news we’ve been hoping for, but didn’t know when it would come. It’s important to begin with the point that this is preliminary and not deeply reviewed data, and it’s coming from a press release. But Pfizer is out this morning saying that an early look at its Phase 3 trial for the coronavirus vaccine shows that there’s been a 90 percent effectiveness rate at preventing infection. When I talked to experts a couple months ago, the expectation was that an approved vaccine would be 70-75 percent effective.

There were no further details given, other than the statistic that 94 infections had been recorded thus far among the 44,000 participants in the study. I believe half of them are given a placebo. Nobody has become “severely” ill. Pfizer has said that it needs 164 COVID infections to complete the study and understand the efficacy of the vaccine.

The drugmaker didn’t give any real information on the safety of the vaccine itself, like whether it has caused any side effects in trial participants. (It’s just said that the vaccine is safe.) And the efficacy data wasn’t broken down by subgroup, to see whether it works well for people or color or the elderly, for example.

The other vaccine makers took federal funding from Operation Warp Speed but Pfizer did not, incidentally, although its partner BioNTech received funding from the German government, and the guaranteed market for a vaccine also makes it easy for them to use their own development dollars. At any rate they’ll be using OWS’ logistics to move the vaccine around the world; 60 Minutes had a good segment on that last night.

Pfizer said it was on track to file an emergency use authorization with the Food and Drug Administration and other governments by the end of the month, which would put approval near the end of the year. The company has only a limited supply (in other words, not 6 billion doses) to start, so there will be early rationing of the vaccine, to essential healthcare workers and vulnerable populations like residents of nursing homes. We’re talking 6-8 months before this vaccine would get into the arms of the general population.

That hasn’t stopped Mr. Market from going wild; Dow Jones futures soared as much as 1,500 points within an hour of the announcement. And that leaves me a little bit concerned.

There’s going to be a natural assumption that things can quickly go back to normal once the vaccine is announced. But things are anything but normal right now, and the vaccine is many months from being available. The numbers are rising exponentially. We had a million new infections in just the past 10 days. There were over 100,000 cases added on Sunday, typically the day with the least reporting. And we’ve just been through a week with 60 million people voting in person, mostly indoors, followed by a series of close-quarters street celebrations for the winner. As the weather cools, we could have another 100,000 dead by Inauguration Day, at least.

stoked a little controversy by comparing those “We Beat Trump” parties to students at Notre Dame storming the field after the football team defeated Clemson; but selective moralizing aside, people should just not be congregating at all right now. I know there’s research about masking and outdoor events, and claims that the George Floyd protests were not deadly. That was a completely different situation than the one we’re experiencing with the virus right now.

The promise of a vaccine should make people more cautious rather than less. It means there’s a chance to get through this terrible situation without ever having the virus, if you just practice social distancing, wear masks, don’t eat indoors at a restaurant, wash your hands, and the like for a few more months. We’re getting precariously close to a point of triage, where the health system will be overwhelmed. That alone will cause more unnecessary deaths. Keeping the system working will allow the medical profession to apply what it’s learned and save lives.

That people have COVID fatigue is obvious. Humans are social creatures and they crave companionship. It’s unnatural to distance for this long. But this vaccine data should give people the energy to do exactly that.

Biden Gets to Work

Speaking of Biden, he announced his coronavirus task force on Monday. Eleven of the twelve members are medical doctors, which is completely on brand with listening to the science. Drs. Vivek Murthy (former surgeon general) and David Kessler (former FDA commissioner) are the co-chairs.

The task force can’t really do anything of value until January, and they’ll be trying to hit a moving target, as we have no idea what the state of the virus will look like by then (though we know it’s likely to get worse, especially given the inattention paid to it of late). It’s a “shadow government” type of apparatus that can criticize the federal response and offer a new vision, but that’s about it. Biden hasn’t even been given the go-ahead by the director of the General Services Administration that he won the election, freezing his transition team out of the government, including access to federal funds and the ability to communicate with executive branch agencies.

The task force has a tough but not impossible job. Indeed we know how to beat the virus, and today’s announcement on Pfizer makes it easier (if you call having to manage the largest logistical project in the history of mankind “easy”). The biggest things they can do unilaterally include procurement (using the Defense Production Act in the way it’s intended to focus national resources) and data collection (having the government actually be an authority on the virus statistics for a change). A contact tracing corps is at the heart of Biden’s thinking but you need to get the virus under more control for that to be effective. Rejoining the WHO would allow the U.S. to access more supplies.

The problem, of course, will be securing the funding from a skeptical Senate Republican caucus, and having a checked-out president provide no leadership through January as the virus burns through the country. And don’t get me started on the economic challenges.

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David Dayen

David Dayen is the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. Follow him on Twitter: @ddayen.