A top vaccine developer told BI that Simply having a coronavirus vaccine may not let us get back to normal immediately.
Even if some people receive a safe and effective vaccine next year, that doesn’t mean people will be able to stop wearing masks and social distancing, Maria Elena Bottazzi, a vaccine developer at Baylor College of Medicine, said in a recent interview.
“They automatically are going to say, ‘oh great, I’m just going to get my little vaccine, and I can go back and do exactly the things I was doing last year,'” Bottazzi said. “That is absolutely not true.”
At least three companies—Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca—are developing coronavirus vaccines that could be ready for emergency use this fall. Moderna on Monday began a pivotal trial called a phase 3 study that will show how well its shot works, and the other companies plan to begin similar research within weeks. The Trump administration is aiming to have 300 million doses of safe and effective coronavirus vaccines available by January.
A vaccine won’t be a ‘magic solution’ for the pandemic
But even if we’re successful, these first shots won’t be a “magic solution” for the pandemic, Bottazzi said.
“The moment you get a vaccine doesn’t mean you’re going to put your mask in the trash,” she said. “That is not going to happen. I hope people don’t think that is going to be the magic solution for all.”
The reason comes down to how well the vaccines work. Vaccines have different levels of effectiveness. An ideal shot gives what vaccine developers call sterilizing immunity, which reliably protects people from getting infected. Many vaccines don’t meet this bar. These shots can lower the chances of developing symptoms of a disease, even if some people still get infected.
In the case of this pandemic, the first coronavirus vaccines may wind up reducing disease but not preventing infection, Bottazzi said. We won’t know how well these first shots work until after the phase 3 studies, which will test them in tens of thousands of volunteers. Bottazzi said she expects these vaccines are unlikely to be perfect.
Moderna’s final-stage study, for instance, will aim to show its experimental vaccine is at least 60% effective at preventing COVID-19. How effective the vaccine is in the study will help provide guidance to people about how they should act, once they get the shot, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel told BI.
The first vaccines won’t necessarily be the most effective vaccines
“If the Moderna vaccine has 90% efficacy, I would say most people should be fine with no mask and so on,” Bancel said, adding that higher-risk people like the elderly may still wear masks to protect themselves.
Bancel said it’s difficult to give specific guidance until there’s efficacy data, which is likely to come in October, November, or December depending on how quickly researchers can run Moderna’s trial.
“The reality is there’s probably going to have to be different generations of vaccines,” Bottazzi said. “We can’t assume you make Moderna or BioNTech and then say, ‘I’m done.'”
Bottazzi is working on her own coronavirus vaccine project at Baylor, building off previous vaccine research she has done on earlier coronavirus outbreaks in 2002-2003 and 2014.
She said she hopes subsequent waves of coronavirus vaccines, which may take longer to develop and test, will be able to be more protective and durable as scientists learn more about the virus and how to fight it.
But, as the history of vaccine development shows, this work typically requires years, not months, to get right.