The news: Pharma giant, Pfizer, and its German biotech partner, BioNTech, just announced that preliminary indications show that its two-shot anti-CoV-2 vaccine is 90% effective in preventing infection. The study is not yet complete, meaning that this is based on what is called interim data analysis. All large scale clinical trials schedule such interim analysis in order to detect potential problems with the study such as potential side effects, enrollment problems, and to make a preliminary assessment on the trial's outcomes. The review is done by a Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB), an independent panel of scientists and statisticians who are not part of the study. Using an independent DSMB allows study personnel to remain blinded as the trial proceeds.
In this case, the interim review of data by the DSMB compared the number of subjects in the placebo control group who became infected to the number of infected subjects who received both vaccine doses. This showed that vaccinated subjects were 90% less likely to be infected. The interim analysis also showed negligible adverse effects in the group who received the vaccine. While still preliminary, these results are encouraging. The study will continue over the next couple of months and even beyond in order to learn how long the immunity lasts and how effective it is in different populations including the elderly and other high risk groups. There seems to be a good chance that final approval will come around the end of year and vaccinations begin shortly after that.
Pfizer began manufacturing the vaccine a few months ago so that they would have a stockpile ready to distribute as soon as FDA approval comes. While this eliminates the usual post-approval delay to ramp up production capability, this strategy is a major gamble for the company since it is not guaranteed that the vaccine would be approved. If the vaccine does not pan out, the company will have to eat the cost for manufacturing a useless vaccine. On the other hand, if the vax is approved, Pfizer is poised to immediately deliver hundreds of millions of doses while their production efforts continue.
This is the first RNA vaccine tested in humans. The potential advantage of this approach is that it completely avoids using the virus itself. “Old fashioned,” vaccines required growing the virus in mass quantities and then crippling or killing it for injection, which is labor intensive, entails certain risks, and is expensive. Instead, the Pfizer vaccine involves cloning part of the genome that is thought to be a target for the immune system, packaging it in an inert lipid nanoparticle, and injecting it in order to aggravate the immune system. The idea is that this fragment of the viral genome will be taken up by human cells and the cellular machinery will use it to produce the viral protein that can stimulate an immune response in the absence of the virus itself. The cells will soon degrade the cloned RNA fragment leaving only immunological memory with which to fight reinfection.
What is next? While this is encouraging news, this brings us to perhaps a larger problem to solve, which is how the early vaccine will be most effectively and fairly distributed. By the end of the year, Pfizer will have a few hundred million doses and predicts it can produce 1.3 billion doses in 2021. Since this is a two-dose vaccine, that means that that will be enough to vaccinate about 650 million people, or less than 10% of the 7.8 billion who live in the world. Who will have priority for the first doses of the vaccine? Will front line health care workers and high risk people be given the first doses? What about world-wide distribution? Since the vaccine is being tested and made by an American company (Pfizer) using technology developed by a German biotech (BioNTech), should those two countries reap the immediate benefit of the early limited doses of vaccine, while the rest of the world waits months for sufficient doses of the vax to meet their needs?
The WHO recommends that the vax be distributed to each country based on its population. Another recommendation from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is to distribute it based on each country's number of health care workers and high risk populations. Others argue that the US should base distribution on racial and socioeconomic disparities. U Penn doctor and medical ethicist, Ezekiel Emanuel (a primary author of Obamacare), proposed a Fair Priority Model that would favor countries with younger populations, weaker economies, and with poor health access--in other words, third world countries.
These suggestions seem moot since advanced purchase agreements already give 80% of that early vax supply to the US, UK, Canada, and Japan.
Another issue regarding distribution is that the vaccine needs to be stored and transported in ultra-cold conditions (-80 degree C. or -112 degrees F.). Such ultra-cold storage facilities are in short supply around the world, meaning that countries with poor health infrastructure will be at a significant disadvantage because they cannot store the vaccine. This ultra-cold storage requirement will also make it challenging for the vax to be administered in a normal doctor’s office or pharmacy, which typically do not have ultra-cold freezers.
Logistics: Once the vaccine is approved, the enormous task of getting billions of doses distributed across the US and around the world begins. This is where Trump’s Operation Warp Speed comes into to play. Even though the Pfizer vaccine was not developed under that program, the logistics of its distribution will be part of Warp Speed, which also includes massive pre-planning for storing, distributing, and delivering two doses of the vaccine ultimately to 300 million Americans. The US Army Materiel Command, headed by four star general Gus Perna, has been tapped for this undertaking. He is the one who sees that American military forces around the globe have sufficient housing, clothing, food, and beer. So, he seems like a good choice to oversee the distribution of billions of doses of a vaccine. You can see more about this on the Nov 8 episode of 60 Minutes. The logistics and planning for this almost makes the development of the new vaccine a trivial issue.
There is joke that goes something like this: Hell is where the English are the cooks, Italians the managers, and Americans the soccer lovers. Heaven is where the English are the soccer lovers, Italians the cooks and Americans the managers. This is a good example of American large-scale management, so we must be in heaven.