With the winter looming before us, many people are putting all their eggs in the vaccine basket. They’re burnt out and stressed and lonely — and the only thing keeping them going is the promise that a COVID vaccine will arrive soon. It’s not uncommon to hear people saying, “The first thing I’m going to do after I get the vaccine is ___!” But with the media treating every small vaccine development like a major news event, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s really happening and what matters.
Confused about what’s going on? You’re not alone. We’ll keep this list updated to answer your most important questions about the COVID-19 vaccines.
When Will COVID Vaccines Be Available?
It’s finally here! On Dec. 13, CDC director Robert Redfield signed off on an outside panel’s recommendation to grant the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine emergency approval for people aged 16 and older. As expected, the FDA gave emergency authorization to the Moderna vaccine soon after Pfizer, on Friday Dec. 18. A healthcare worker in New York was the first to get vaccinated in mid-December, and residents of long-term care facilities have also started to receive the vaccine.
Three companies have now publicized their vaccine results. Pfizer was the first company to share that its vaccine is 95 percent effective. Moderna was second with 94 percent efficacy. AstraZeneca also announced that its vaccine is up to 90 percent effective, although the data is murky. Johnson & Johnson expects that its vaccine results will be available in January, and the company plans to file for emergency authorization in February. It’s unknown whether the vaccines will be as effective against the new U.K. and South Africa variants, which appear to spread easier. Experts say it’s unlikely that the coronavirus mutations would make the vaccines entirely ineffective.
At this point, it’s not a race between the various vaccine companies. The more vaccines that become available, the better next year looks for all of us.
When Will the AstraZeneca COVID Vaccine Be Available?
Regulators in other countries, such as the U.K. and India, have granted AstraZeneca’s vaccine emergency approval, but the process is dragging out longer in the U.S. The company’s clinical trials in the U.S. were put on hold for more than a month to investigate a serious adverse event in a trial volunteer, so experts don’t expect it’s results until next year, according to the New York Times.
In addition, the company’s data is under scrutiny after it initially failed to disclose critical information related to vaccine efficacy. With two full doses, the vaccine was 62 percent effective. With a half dose followed by a full dose booster, the vaccine was 90 percent effective. However, the more effective regimen was a result of error in how much vaccine was placed in some vials, and it was tested in a younger population. The company changed the trial’s methods after they realized this error to include the new regimen in the trial, according to the chief executive officer Pascal Soriot, but AstraZeneca did not reveal this in its original press release.
Soriot said the company may need to conduct another international trial to test the second regimen, Bloomberg reported. The head of Operation Warp Speed recently said not to expect the AstraZeneca vaccine until early April, largely because the existing data doesn’t include elderly people.
Who Will Get the COVID Vaccine First?
The vaccine won’t be available to everyone at first. First in line are healthcare workers that are at high risk of being exposed to the coronavirus and residents and employees of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, according to a CDC report. Together, this group consists of about 24 million U.S. residents. The U.S. government aimed to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of 2020, but only 4.6 million have gotten the shot so far.
The second priority will be frontline workers and adults who are 75 and older, a CDC advisory committee said on Sunday. Frontline workers include first responders, public transit and grocery store workers, and workers in education, food and agriculture, manufacturing, and the U.S. Postal Service. Third in line are adults aged 65 and older, people between the ages of 16-64 with high-risk underlying conditions, and the rest of essential workers, MedPage Today reports. Individual state governors may decide to prioritize different groups with the help of local public health officials. “It’s probably May, June, before you vaccinate most of the country,” Robert Wachter, a chair in the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told KCRA.
Most children won’t be able to get a COVID-19 vaccine until more studies look into how they affect kids, according to the CDC. The one exception: Teenagers aged 16 and older are allowed to get the Pfizer vaccine. However, they probably won’t get it for many months because young people are generally at low risk of severe COVID-19.
Pfizer received permission to enroll kids as young as 12 in their vaccine trial in early October. Moderna has announced that it will soon start to enroll 3,000 children age 12 to 17 in its study. “We wanted to be sure it was safe on adults first before doing a whole lot of testing on kids,” Wachter said. Vaccines that are safe and effective in adults are generally safe and effective in children, but they must be tested on kids first before they are mass distributed to them.
For a more personalized look at when you could get the vaccine, check out this short quiz from the New York Times that estimates your place in line. Most people will have to wait until the spring at the earliest.
Where Can I Get the COVID Vaccine?
Vaccines are not publicly available at the moment. Healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities may want to check with their institutions about when and where they can get vaccinated. Not every vaccine that will eventually be approved will be available everywhere, which is one reason why it’s important to have multiple vaccine options.
Pfizer’s vaccine is the hardest to distribute. It must be stored at the ultra cold temperature of -70 degrees Celsius. Not every healthcare facility is capable of this type of storage. And once a box of vaccines is removed from the freezer for use, it only lasts for five days before going bad. Luckily, Moderna’s vaccine can be stored at a much more manageable -20 degrees Celsius, and it lasts for 30 days in the refrigerator. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is the easiest to distribute: It can be stored for six months at normal fridge temperatures.
What’s in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID Vaccines?
Pfizer and Moderna are both using a new kind of vaccine called a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. Messenger RNA is a type of genetic material that encodes the instructions for making proteins. The mRNA in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines encode for the spike protein on the coronavirus that grabs and infects human cells. After being vaccinated, the body builds up antibodies that respond to this spike protein in case it gets exposed to the real coronavirus later on. The mRNA doesn’t stay in the body but is broken down after a few days.
Vaccines usually contain a common set of added ingredients, including:
- Aluminum: boosts the body’s response to the vaccine
- MF59 or Squalene oil: boosts the body’s response to the vaccine
- Thiomersal: preservative
- Gelatin: preservative
- Sorbitol: stabilizes the vaccine
- Emulsifiers: holds ingredients together
(For more information about these ingredients, many of which are in the flu vaccine, click here.)
Pfizer has released its full list of ingredients, which include many of those listed above. It includes lipids, or fats, that surround the mRNA and help it enter cells. It also contains four types of salts that keep the vaccine at the same acidity as the human body and sugar, which keeps small particles in the vaccine from sticking together when they’re frozen. The vaccine contains no preservatives, a choice Pfizer made because some preservatives are at the center of disproved worries that vaccines cause autism, according to the MIT Technology Review. Moderna has also published its ingredients, which are similar to Pfizer’s.
What’s in the AstraZeneca COVID Vaccine?
AstraZeneca’s vaccine uses a more traditional approach. It’s active ingredient is a defunct virus that gives chimpanzees the common cold. The virus is modified so that it won’t make humans sick and so that it contains the gene that encodes for the coronavirus spike protein. When a person is injected with this vaccine, the chimp virus hijacks the human cells to produce the spike protein. The body then does it’s thing, taking out the proteins and creating antibodies to attack them if they come back around.
I Got the COVID Vaccine. What Now?
Good question. Nothing different. When you first get the vaccine, you will need to keep going about a normal pandemic lifestyle: social distancing, staying at home, and wearing a mask when you do go in public. The first reason for this is that it takes time for immunity to kick in. You’ll need to wait a month between your first shot and your booster. After your booster, it will be several more weeks until you hit peak protection.
After that time passes, you may feel invincible from the virus. And you may very well be safer. But no vaccine is 100 percent effective. Even though Pfizer and Moderna report that their vaccines are about 95 percent effective each, that number could drop when real-world data comes in. And the companies didn’t track how many people that received their vaccines got infected and were asymptomatic, so it’s possible you could feel fine and spread COVID-19 even after you’ve been vaccinated.
It will only be safe to start going more once we reach herd immunity. At that point, case numbers and then hospitalizations and deaths will begin to decline. Ashish Jha, a health policy researcher and dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, predicted on Twitter that with a combination of vaccines and natural immunity from being infected, at least 40 percent of the U.S. population will have immunity to COVID-19 by the end of February. At this point, the spread will slow, but we won’t yet be at herd immunity.
But until we know that the vaccine really does bring down case rates, we can’t go back to life as normal. This won’t happen until enough people vaccinated, which could be spring or summer at the earliest. Then, public health officials will make the call. In the meantime, get the vaccine and keep playing your part to drive infections down.
This story is developing. We will update it as new information becomes available.