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MSU Infectious Disease Specialist Weighs In On Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine Announcement

Vaccine photo
Pan American Health Organization PAHO
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The drug manufacturer Pfizer announced promising test results on a possible COVID-19 vaccine this week. It’s being reported that the vaccine could be submitted to the FDA for emergency use authorization as soon as the third week of November. WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks with MSU infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Gulick about the Pfizer announcement.

SCOTT POHL: I thought I'd begin by asking you about how much we know at this point about this new vaccine announcement that came from Pfizer and a German partner called BioNTech this week, what do we know?

DR. PETER GULICK: Well, there's a lot of information coming out almost every second it appears, where the Pfizer company, who is one of the companies looking at manufacturing a COVID vaccine, came out with some data just recently on their trials, showing that the vaccine appears to be 90% effective. They did this by looking at about 44,000 patients that they have put in trials, and what they found was that they looked at a group of 94 patients that had developed symptoms and found that the majority of them were symptomatic, that had not gotten a vaccine and a very small amount who got the vaccine actually got COVID. So again, 90% effective, which was really something well above and beyond what was felt to be the effectiveness of this vaccine. It was hoped to be maybe 50% to 60% effective, maybe 75%, but 90% far exceeded the expectations.

POHL: Ninety percent really sounds great. The annual flu vaccine isn't always that effective, isn't that so?

DR. GULICK: Yeah, the flu vaccine can be about 50% to 60% effective, maybe the flip of a coin.

There will be a layering as to who gets the vaccine first. The health care workers, the high risk individuals, and then the next layer: comorbid individuals, the older individuals. Dr. Peter Gulick

POHL: Other manufacturers are continuing their research, you have to assume. What are the next steps at Pfizer and at their competitors? Does this become something of a race to the finish line?

DR. GULICK: Well, I think we're all looking for the best outcome. The fact that hopefully this vaccine will be effective, and not only effective in  preventing the COVID vaccine, but safe as well. There's a lot of safety information that has to be accumulated. Obviously, when we're looking at a vaccine being developed this quickly, because many vaccines take years before they're actually released, but the COVID vaccines are being done at a much accelerated pace. Obviously looking at safety, as well as efficacy, is very important, and I can tell you that the government has many different layers where they're looking at this safety data. It's not just one group or one area where they're looking at it, but many, many layers, so they're really evaluating this as best they can, but obviously, the ultimate safety is going to be acquired as time goes on.

We want to look at the patient groups, and one thing Pfizer did do was, they didn't just look at a healthy population, they also looked at individuals that were greater than 65 years of age, comorbid individuals that had disease states, patients that were different racial ethnicities, the African-Americans, the Hispanics, patients with immunocompromised states, for instance, rheumatologic patients that have autoimmune diseases, or HIV patients, these are all important groups of individuals to study because the vaccine has to be effective at all these groups. It can't just be a vaccine effective in a healthy population, so there's going to be more and more data coming out. Obviously, there's going to have to be, more accumulated information on all these different subgroups. Basically, that's going to come as time goes on.

Then the other issue with the vaccine is when it does prevent infection, the ones that did get infected, that they got the vaccine, did they just have mild illness, or did they have more severe illness by getting the vaccine? Will you be effectively not able to transmit the virus to somebody else by getting a vaccine? These are all things that we don't have answers to.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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