Pfizer announced this week that their COVID-19 vaccine candidate has performed extremely well in their clinical trials, a reassuring sign that the months of investment and breakneck work on vaccines to protect people against the virus was going to pay off. That was never a sure thing — immunologists and virologists were pretty sure it’d be possible to make a vaccine that would block the coronavirus, but in pharmaceutical development, there’s no such thing as a guarantee.
This success makes it as important as ever to double down on efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, which is currently raging out of control in most of the US. Back in March, when the pandemic was first picking up speed, public health officials stressed the importance of “flattening the curve” — suppressing transmission so that the number of infections stayed at a manageable level. After it became clear that eliminating all cases of the virus wasn’t going to happen, the goal was to keep the number of sick people from overwhelming the medical system.
Experts also stressed the importance of flattening the curve to buy researchers and doctors time to figure out how to treat COVID-19 — and develop a vaccine. For the most part, people are better off if they catch the disease now than they were in March or April. More tests are available, doctors have more tools to help patients who are hospitalized, and there’s more understanding of the progression of the illness.
Having a vaccine on the horizon supercharges the importance of keeping as many people from getting sick now as possible. The first people who get an authorized vaccine, because of risk factors like their job or age, probably won’t receive it until early in 2021. Most people who aren’t first in line won’t be able to take a shot until the spring or summer. But every person who can stay well until then is someone who might never catch the disease at all. Or, if they do, they could have a milder case of it than they might have otherwise. Cracking down with public health guidelines that can get people through to the winter, spring, or summer now has even more benefit.
There are, as always, caveats: Pfizer only released a small amount of information in a press release. We don’t know how long protection from this vaccine could last, and we don’t know if it stops people from getting infected or just stops them from feeling sick if they catch the virus. We should know more after more data is published. A vaccine isn’t going to end the pandemic on its own, and good public health practices like wearing masks will be important after people start getting immunizations.
Despite the necessary cautions, the Pfizer announcement flicked on a light at the end of the tunnel. The apparent success of this vaccine is a good sign for the other vaccines in development — drug company Moderna’s vaccine candidate is very similar to the Pfizer vaccine, so there’s a good chance it’ll work, as well. Many of the others in development target the same area of the virus that Pfizer did, which is another sign that research went in the right direction.
The news, though, comes just as there’s another mountain to flatten. COVID-19 cases are climbing to horrifying new heights in the United States. In the first 10 days of November, 1 million new people in the US tested positive for the disease. Nearly every state is trending in the wrong direction, the health care systems in many places are already completely overwhelmed.
It is time to flatten the curve once again. It won’t be easy or popular — after months of constantly changing restrictions, there’s less appetite for strict public health responses like lockdowns. But keeping people alive and keeping our hospitals functioning is a critical reason to suppress the virus. Holding things together until a vaccine can relieve some of the burden is another.
The light is still months away, but it’s there. We only have to make sure as many people as possible can get to it.