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Experts Cautiously Positive on Pfizer Vaccine, S. Korea Hopes for More Data

#Hot Issues of the Week l 2020-11-15



Pfizer has announced the interim results of its COVID-19 vaccine, raising hopes that the pandemic might come to an end. The company said that the experimental vaccine may be 90 percent effective but infectious disease experts said the announcement doesn't guarantee an imminent release of shots just yet. The South Korean Health Ministry said it hopes the pharmaceutical company will provide more information on the vaccine candidate.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech say early clinical results of their joint COVID-19 vaccine suggests the shot may be 90 percent effective at preventing the disease.

[Pfizer Chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla]

"Ninety percent is a game changer. Ninety percent, now you’re hoping to have a tool in this war against the pandemic that would be significantly effective.”

As the interim results were announced on Monday, Pfizer Chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla said the companies can produce up to 50 million doses, good for 25 million people, this year and one-point-three billion doses in 2021. For the vaccine to be effective, each person must take two doses.

The vaccine candidate was tested on some 43-thousand-500 people and no immediate safety concerns were raised.

Infectious disease experts are advising caution but noted that the peek behind the curtain suggests a first step has been taken toward major progress.

Dr. Paul Duprex is the director of the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

[Paul Duprex - Director of Center for Vaccine Research, University of Pittsburgh]

"Does this mean that COVID is cured because you hear a number like 90 percent? No. Does this mean that this will be the best vaccine? No. Does this mean that this vaccine will provide immunity for years and years and years, like measles vaccine that we know gives us lifelong immunity? No. What we know today from this very limited analysis is we have started to make progress in using a candidate vaccine and seen a reduction in disease, but there's a long way to go before that vaccine is the vaccine that's given to tens, hundreds of millions of individuals."

Professor Azra Ghani at Imperial College London says she believes the vaccine does offer protection as those who received the placebo had higher numbers of COVID-19 infections.

 [Prof. Azra Ghani - Chair in Infectious DiseaseEpidemiology, Imperial College London]

"There were many vaccine candidates in development, many of those in similar phase three trials at the moment, all of them as shown in earlier stages, that individuals mount what we call an immune response, their body reacts to the vaccine and makes the appropriate immune markers. However, this is the first time that we've seen actual evidence that those markers are actually generating protection against the disease itself."

Seo Kyung-won, drug evaluation department chief at the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, said the interim results sound promising but called for patience.

[Seo Kyung-won – Drug Evaluation Dep’t, Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (Korean-English translation)]

"We are continuously monitoring the Pfizer vaccine test results. We will continue to do so and the government will start discussing whether to adopt the vaccine."

Health Ministry spokesperson Son Young-rae said he hopes Pfizer will provide more data when it seeks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s(FDA) emergency approval for the vaccine this month. 

He said countering the virus should be approached with a long-term strategy, stressing that even if companies succeed in developing vaccines, it could take much longer for the general public to get the shots.

Some experts have noted that the Pfizer vaccine needs to be chilled at minus 70 degrees Celsius, making its distribution more difficult in the developing world.

The South Korean health authorities say they will exert all-out efforts to secure sufficient doses of a coronavirus vaccine to inoculate 60 percent of the nation's entire population within this year. 

During a daily COVID-19 briefing Thursday, Kwon Joon-wook, deputy director of the Central Quarantine Countermeasures Headquarters, revealed the plan, under which the government will make down payments to pharmaceutical companies developing the shots to ensure delivery when the vaccines are finally ready.

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