Even with the data we have, it’s too early to take the vaccine

Photo courtesy of Coolcaesar, Wikipedia

With rising rates of COVID-19 cases around the country and flu season quickly approaching, it’s shaping up to be a very worrying winter. The cold weather will leave people more vulnerable to getting sick and being stuck inside makes contracting the virus more likely if you live with someone who ends up testing positive. 

For college students like us who might have part-time jobs, there’s also a greater fear of contracting the virus from customers or fellow employees, as people are constantly coming in and out of the store with no way of knowing where they have been or who they have come in contact with.

However, there is a beacon of light amidst all of the dark clouds of fear. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer recently announced early data from their vaccine trials, suggesting that their vaccines may be 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19. 

That sounds wonderful, right? It means that Pfizer is on their way to filing an emergency use application with U.S. regulators. The company is, as Pfizer’s senior vice president of clinical development Dr. Bill Gruber said, “in a position potentially to be able to offer some hope." 

So, should we be racing to take the vaccine as soon as possible?

I think the answer is that we should put our feet on the metaphorical gas pedal and hit the brakes on our excitement. As wonderful as it would be to have an effective way to prevent the virus, it is too early to be celebrating yet.

First, the data is still in the early stages. Pfizer’s data analysis, which came from an independent data gathering board, only looked at 94 recorded infections so far, 70 short of the number of total infections among all volunteers, a number that the FDA agreed is enough to tell if the vaccine is working. 

Additionally, Pfizer released no additional details about those cases and warned that the initial protection rate may change by the end of the study. When covering the story, the Boston Globe commented that releasing such early data for a clinical trial is “highly unusual”.

Also, the study is still ongoing. The FDA has made it clear that the developing vaccine must be at least 50 percent effective. As I mentioned before, Pfizer does not have enough data from infected individuals to conclude the effectiveness of the vaccine. This leads to some major unanswered questions that make it even more important that we wait on taking the vaccine. The researchers still do not know how many of the infections occurred in older people, the most high-risk group for COVID-19. It is also unknown whether vaccinated individuals could contract the virus and become asymptomatic carriers since the study only tests volunteers if they develop symptoms. 

To me, the early announcement of incomplete data is like placing a bet on a roulette table without ever looking at the wheel or the odds and declaring what space the ball will land on and how much you hope to win. You’re making a random judgment call by giving out an arbitrary number without having enough information to back up that claim.

And even if the vaccine was ready, it is far too early for enough Americans to be able to take it. Manufacturers are racing to seek permission for emergency use of vaccines, something that would only apply to a select few individuals. This is an act that FDA scientific advisors said could damage confidence in the vaccine and make it even harder to find out if they really work. 

Some people say the vaccine will be ready by the end of the year. I think that’s being too optimistic. In an interview with think tank Chatham House, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that the vaccine will probably be ready for the general population “between the end of the first quarter and the end of the second quarter” (meaning anywhere from March to June). We should also wait until the FDA says it is okay to take the vaccine, which may take even longer.

I think that once the vaccine is released, it will be a sign of hope. COVID-19 has ruled our lives for so long and taken so many lives. I think it could really help combat the rising rates we’ve been seeing recently. However, we shouldn’t be racing to take the vaccine once it's ready. Just because it is in the final stages of testing and may be available to some individuals soon, it doesn’t mean we should take it without knowing the effectiveness of the vaccine and finding answers to all of the unanswered questions surrounding it. 

Winter is coming. Until the vaccine is truly ready, we shouldn’t become complacent. As Fauci said about the virus and vaccine, “The calvary is coming but don’t put your weapons down, you better keep fighting because they are not here yet. Help is on the way, but it isn’t here yet.”  

Let’s continue to wear masks, socially distance ourselves and closely follow other public health measures so we can keep ourselves safe and healthy in the meantime.