The news of a safe, effective vaccine has been a rare bright spot during the yearlong fight against the coronavirus. Two pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer and Moderna, are racing toward emergency authorization for their vaccines, both of which boast an efficacy rate of more than 94 percent. That authorization could come as soon as a few days from now, and the first vaccinations could begin later this month.
A line for the vaccine is already forming, but plenty of questions remain. Recently, the nonprofit Math for America, a New York-based organization for math and science teachers, hosted an information-rich webinar about the coronavirus and the mechanics of developing effective vaccines with Dr. Florian Krammer, a professor of vaccinology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, who has amassed a large Twitter following in recent months for his discussions on the science of vaccines.
Following the talk, Krammer answered educators’ questions. Here is a lightly edited sampling of those remarks. (For those interested in the science behind the vaccines, which use mRNA technology, the New York Times has an illustrated breakdown.)
Where do educators fall in the priority list for vaccines?
Krammer points to the four-phase vaccine allocation proposal by the National Academy of Sciences, designed to provide an equitable framework for vaccine distribution. According to the framework, teachers and school staff fall in the second category, behind high-risk health care workers and older adults in nursing homes and those with comorbidities to COVID-19, but ahead of kids, young adults and those in critical jobs who are only at moderate risk for contracting COVID-19. Older teachers and those with preexisting conditions may be closer to the front of the line.
“I think that makes sense. You have a lot of exposure to kids,” Krammer says of teachers’ place in line for the vaccine. “There are assumptions that kids are less infectious, but kids have transmitted the virus plenty. So I think you should get the vaccine as soon as possible if you want to get it.”
When will kids be able to receive vaccines?
Right now it’s an open question, and pharmaceutical companies are just beginning to test the vaccine in kids aged 12 to 18. Pfizer’s trials have already begun. As for Moderna, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested expedited trials could begin in January, but that it could be months until kids can receive a vaccine.
“The window is closing on any chance of getting an approved vaccine for children before next school year, and it realistically may have already closed,” Dr. Evan Anderson, a pediatrician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, told the Washington Post.
How will the vaccination process work?
According to the Wall Street Journal, the federal government is working with national pharmacy chains to make the vaccine widely available. The vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca (the latter of which is a bit further from authorization) require two separate doses, given three or four weeks apart. The vaccine is expected to be free of charge.
Should those who have had COVID-19 earlier this year still get the vaccine?
“It’s probably a good idea, specifically if you’re in a more high-risk group, to still get to the vaccine,” Krammer says. “And the other question that I usually get in that direction is: Is it going to be safe to get the vaccine if I already have antibodies? A proportion of the people in those clinical trials were actually positive already, because they didn’t screen whether somebody already had antibodies or not. It doesn’t seem that there is an additional risk. If you’re in a high-risk group, I would probably recommend it, but I don’t think for those people who had an infection it’s the most urgent thing to do.”
Many people in the trials wore masks and practiced social distancing. Will the efficacy of the vaccine be lower when people stop wearing masks and start gathering?
“There’s a wide variety” of people who participated in the trials, Krammer says. “There’s probably health care workers wearing N95 masks, and then there’s probably people in the trials who didn’t care. If you would take away the masks, the result would have been that they would have known about the frequency earlier, because there would have been more cases. But I don’t think the frequency would have changed.
“I think the question about wearing masks and social distancing in public is less determined by how many people are vaccinated than by how much virus is around in the population. Of course if many people are vaccinated, there is much less virus around. If a lot of the high-risk groups are vaccinated there will be way fewer issues in terms of severe disease and death spread. But in the end it’s really the question of how much virus is around. I think that will determine when we stop with social distancing and wearing masks.
“What I assume is that there’s two things that will come together in spring. One is temperatures getting warmer. And the other one is that more and more people will be vaccinated. And that could give us a synergistic effect that helps us to get back to normal. By going back to normal I do not mean we eliminate the virus. I do not think that that virus will get eliminated at all.”
What would you say to someone who is on the fence about whether or not to take the vaccine?
“If you look at the data with the vaccine and the data with the virus infection, what are the risks?” Krammer says. “What are the risks with the vaccine—even if we assume that maybe some rare severe side effects occur that we didn’t see in 40,000 people—and what are the risks with the infection?
“The second thing that I always mention is control. I want to have control over my body and over my life. I can take the vaccine and I can take that little risk that’s associated with the vaccine, and get the control over my life back. Or I can not take the vaccine, and at any moment in time I can get infected. And I have no control over what the virus does. We know that younger people have severe disease less often. But even if you’re 20 or 25, the virus might do something that you don’t expect.”
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