(Focus on the Family takes no position at this time on the use of COVID-19 vaccines, nor do we endorse any particular vaccine candidate. The use of a COVID-19 vaccine, when it becomes available, is a decision best left to individuals and families.)
Everyone wants the COVID-19 pandemic over and done with yesterday. We want life to go back to normal. And by “normal,” we mean a mask-less existence. No six feet of social distancing. No avoiding handshakes and hugs or singing in church. We’ve put a man on the moon, for goodness’ sake. Can’t we stop a tiny virus?
One of the ways America is rolling up its sleeves and tackling this extraordinary problem is in the search for an effective vaccine. And vaccines take time. There’s a lot of government “red tape” involved that is designed to protect lives by making sure that vaccines are safe as well as effective.
Here’s what you need to know about the search for a COVID-19 vaccine.
- President Donald Trump has initiated “Operation Warp Speed” designed to ensure that the various companies and laboratories working on a vaccine clear the government approval process as safely and as quickly as possible. By partnering with those entities developing vaccines, the administration’s goal is to provide 300 million doses of an effective vaccine by January 2021.
- Americans are not completely sure yet whether they will undergo a vaccination when it becomes available. In a survey of over 1,000 American adults conducted by The Associated Press in conjunction with the University of Chicago, 49% say they plan to get vaccinated, 20% say they will not, and 31% are unsure. The hesitancy is understandable, say doctors, since it’s difficult to put your trust in a vaccine that doesn’t yet exist.
- Phase 3 clinical tests involve thousands of people to test the vaccine in order to instill confidence in its effectiveness and safety. Half of the test volunteers receive the vaccine, and the other half receive a placebo. The two groups continue with their lives and then are checked again at a later point to see what the rate of infection is for each group and to determine the side effects. At least one company, Moderna, Inc., which is partnering with the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has begun Phase 3 testing. Other efforts by companies both here and abroad are also in various stages of testing.
- Vaccines don’t have to be 100% successful to be considered effective. Anyone who is familiar with annual flu shots can tell you that they don’t always work for everyone. But the goal is to reduce the spread of the influenza virus, so lots of people get a shot every year. The World Health Organization’s standard for an acceptable vaccine is a minimum of 50% effectiveness. A weak vaccine can give false hope and convince people to take risks they otherwise would not, which can end up increasing the level of sickness within the population. That’s the opposite of what an effective vaccine should do.
- The mass testing done in a Phase 3 trial also provides some assurance of the safety of a vaccine. Tests done with mice in the laboratory can’t predict what the side effects might be on humans. In 1976, fears of a possible H1N1 “swine” flu epidemic prompted a hurried search for a cure, resulting in the vaccination of millions of Americans. However, over 500 people suffered paralysis as a result.
- We may still end up wearing masks and social distancing even with a vaccine, says the former head of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Tom Frieden. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Frieden said, “Unless the vaccine is extraordinarily effective and accepted, cases and clusters will continue, necessitating quick, effective public-health responses. Our society will still have to adapt to limit the virus’s spread—reducing close contact indoors, holding off on handshakes, wearing masks and improving ventilation.”
For those of us who just want to see this virus go away and sports arenas and theaters and churches once again filled to capacity, this last point is a cautionary warning. We are all going to have to adjust to a COVID-19 world for a while longer, perhaps even for a long while.
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