It feels like a Christmas miracle. Thanks to the tireless efforts of scientists across the globe, most of us will be vaccinated for COVID-19 by summer 2021.
This is unprecedented. Prior to the release of the Pfizer product, it was extremely uncommon for a vaccine to be developed in less than five years. To have Phase 1 trials underway just two months after the identification of COVID-19 and a highly effective vaccine ready for distribution in under a year seems truly miraculous.
Digging deeper, it is anything but. Thanks to the proliferation of coronaviruses and their previously identified pandemic threat (think SARS-CoV and MERS) scientists have been making steady progress toward a vaccine for years. The discovery of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, merely accelerated an already progressive timeline.
Anyone who has spent time in a research lab knows that science is a numbers game. There are only a finite number of experiments that can be done, and it is your job as a researcher to prioritize the order in which to perform them. It’s then just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, ruling out unfavorable lines of inquiry as you go, and, eventually, you’ll get there. Sometimes the sheer number of ways a set of experiments can be put together is truly daunting, but, given enough time and effort, you will find a solution. Good thing scientists are trained to be patient and deliberate and think nothing of spending years studying a single type of virus.
Of course, if you don’t have that kind of time, you just need more scientists. Scientists to run the experiments, scientists to analyze the results and scientists to design the next experiment. Get enough people and you can cut your timeline by quite a bit. We accelerated things even further by developing the production methods in parallel with the experiments and streamlining the review process, bringing the vaccine to “market” in record time.
I put market in quotes because I doubt any natural market forces would have been able to accelerate the development of such a vaccine, just like no market forces would have ever gotten us to the moon. You need concerted effort by everyone regardless of the resources required. You also need a deep bench of extremely well-prepared individuals. The development of those scientists requires public support of a robust system of universities and national laboratories, something the United States has worked hard to build over the years.
The development and testing of a vaccine are just the first steps. We also need to distribute and administer them to the public. Given the initial limited number of doses, this requires prioritization, but ultimately, it’s just a logistics challenge, albeit a very large one. We need to administer around 250 million doses. With 7 million given in the first week, we are looking at something like 35 weeks before we reach that goal. A long haul to be sure, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
None of this matters if people don’t get vaccinated. Even though there is a vocal minority on social media spreading fear about the vaccine, recent polls are encouraging. An ABC News/Ipsos poll in mid-December indicated more than 80% of Americans are planning to receive the vaccine, and only 15% saying they would refuse. I’ve seen polls showing people saying they are willing to get the shot as low as 60% but the current mood makes me optimistic.
That said, public opinion is fickle. Beating COVID-19 and getting back to some semblance of normal will require all of us. So, I encourage you to contact your doctor and find out when you are eligible to receive the vaccine, and then go and get it as soon as it’s your turn. In the meantime, talk to your friends and family, and encourage them to do the same. If you are a health care provider who has already received a dose, tell your friends and family how it went.
I suspect in the next few months we’ll hear a lot of anecdotes about how things have gone badly for some. Stories of allergic reactions from the first doses in Britain are already making the rounds. Such stories are news because they are extremely rare. We must have faith that scientists have done the hard work to develop a safe and effective vaccine in record time.
And this faith is the true miracle.