6 Things We Know — And Don’t — About The COVID-19 Vaccine

On January 21, 2020, the US had its first confirmed case of COVID-19.

On February 3, the US declared a public health emergency.

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Just 5 days later, on March 16, Jennifer Haller became the first person outside of China to receive an experimental vaccine.

Since Jennifer Haller received that first shot, researchers around the world have begun testing more than 200 experimental COVID-19 vaccines.

As 2020 comes to an end, COVID-19 cases are still climbing across the US. But there is finally good news. On November 9, Pfizer and BioNTech released the stunning results of their Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial. One week later, Moderna published their equally impressive results. And for the third week in a row, we learned that another biopharmaceutical company — AstraZeneca — also had promising results from a trial of their vaccine.

Snapshot: How Effective Are COVID-19 Vaccines?

  • A COVID-19 vaccine must have at least 50% efficacy to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  • The AstraZeneca vaccine is up to 90% effective at preventing COVID-19.
  • Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are about 95% effective at preventing COVID-19.

*Results are based on Phase 3 clinical trials and are current as of December 3, 2020

Other pharmaceutical giants worldwide are testing their own vaccines, with several poised to follow on the successful heels of their predecessors.

Here’s a look at what we know — and what we don’t know — about the COVID-19 vaccine.

1. The vaccine promises to be highly effective — but hold onto your mask.

The results of the first vaccine trials have been nothing short of incredible.

That’s undoubtedly exciting news, but it’s not an invitation to throw out your masks and abandon hand sanitizer once you’ve been vaccinated.

While the vaccine might protect you from becoming infected, it does not protect you from being exposed. If you’re in the early group, and most other people have not received the vaccine yet, the virus can still be circulating like it was before — leaving you exposed. And since the vaccine is not 100% effective, you should still avoid exposure as much as possible.

2. Healthcare workers and elderly residents at long-term care facilities will [probably] get the vaccine first.

The exact timeline of who will get the vaccine and when isn’t set in stone — however, we have a good idea of how it will go.

On December 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that once the COVID-19 vaccine has been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and has been recommended by Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the first recipients should be healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities.

As we get into 2021, the eligibility criteria will expand to include people over age 65, frontline workers, and those with preexisting conditions. It’s most likely that the last group of people to get the vaccine will be young, healthy members of the general public. It’s predicted that by July-September 2021, most US adults who want a vaccine will have access to one.

3. It’s still going to be a while before we reach herd immunity.

Herd immunity is when there is a large enough percentage of a population immune to a disease that the spread of the disease is unlikely.

Some people have pushed for a natural herd immunity approach to fighting COVID-19, which involves letting people get exposed to the virus and build natural immunity. However, research and the failed attempt at achieving herd immunity naturally in Sweden made it clear that this was not going to be the best course of action for fighting COVID-19.

Vaccines are a much more effective and efficient way to reach herd immunity. But even though vaccines are on the horizon, we have to be a little patient. We’re not going to get to herd immunity right away.

For any vaccine to offer enough protection for herd immunity, a certain percentage of the population has to be immune. The percentage can range from 50% to 90% of the population needing to be immune, depending on the type of illness and its contagiousness.

The percentage needed for the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t yet known, but many believe that the magic number will fall somewhere between 70% and 80%. However, a November 17 Gallup poll found that only 58% of American adults say they would be willing to get the vaccine.

That doesn’t mean we will never get there. We just need to be patient.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has stated that if enough people take the vaccine, we could start seeing at least a slight return to normal just a few months into 2021. And by the third and fourth quarters of 2021, we could be back to relative normalcy.

4. The vaccine was developed in record speed — but that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.

One of the top concerns that people have had about the vaccine is that it was developed in less than a year, when most vaccines take upwards of 10 years. Once approved, it will claim the title of “fastest vaccine developed” from the mumps vaccine, which took 4 years. (Note that the H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine only took a few months. However, it is technically considered a type of flu vaccine, so it does not hold a record).

The nation’s top health experts have emphasized that the speed at which the vaccine was developed did not come at the expense of safety. Factors like increased funding, new methods for making vaccines, and manufacturing (but not distributing) the vaccine on a large scale before proven efficacy and safety have allowed researchers to follow all safety steps they would normally follow. There may be an increased financial risk, but there is no increase in product safety risk.

We also don’t know about long-term side effects, if any. But this is actually a risk that comes with many vaccines. If we waited a full lifetime to see the long-term effects, it would take decades for any vaccine to be available.

5. We don’t know how long immunity lasts.

Some vaccines, like the one for the flu, only last for a few months and require you to get vaccinated again the next year. Others, like the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, typically provide lifelong immunity.

We haven’t had enough time with the vaccine to learn just how long it will actually protect you, and whether or not you will ever need to get vaccinated again.

It may be a few years before we have an answer — so just in case, you may want to keep some masks on reserve.

6. The vaccine will be free.

If you have been worried about being able to afford a vaccine, you can breathe a sigh of relief.

On October 28, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced a set of regulations to ensure that all Americans will have access to free COVID-19 vaccines.

Under their guidance, Medicare patients will not be charged for the vaccine itself or for administrative costs. Most private health plans and insurers will also be required to cover recommended COVID-19 vaccines and administrative costs, even if you receive it from an out-of-network provider.

If you are uninsured, you will still be able to get the vaccine for free.

We may not know exactly how long immunity will last, or how many people will get vaccinated. But as the new year begins, the promise of effective and safe vaccines provides a light at the end of the tunnel.

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