PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) — The announcement from Pfizer Tuesday of clinical trial for a potential coronavirus vaccine has been greeted with excitement and hope that it is a light at the end of the tunnel.
It was among the first things Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talked about in her Tuesday morning appearance on NBC News’ “Today.”
“The fact that there are human trials going on and Pfizer has announced that they are producing here in Michigan is a wonderful thing. It’s not imminent but it is on the horizon and I think we need to find those sources of inspiration,” Whitmer said.
WHY WE NEED A VACCINE
The virus has infected more than 44,000 and taken more than 4,100 lives in Michigan alone.
“If you estimate the true mortality of this virus, it’s probably 10 to 100 times that of influenza,” Spectrum Health infectious disease specialist Dr. Liam Sullivan told News 8, explaining there’s no medicine to stop COVID-19 right now. “We have absolutely no immunity to this virus in our population. As this virus burns through the population, unfortunately it’s taking a lot of lives with it and that’s going to continue until we have widespread immunity to it.”
Sullivan said without a vaccine, we would have to allow herd immunity to develop through people getting sick. That would carry a high toll.
“Developing herd immunity costs tens of thousands of lives,” he explained.
That’s why the announcement that Pfizer is working with a German company to develop a potential vaccine at breakneck speed is good news.
“I think cautiously optimistic would be the best way to describe it,” Sullivan said.
THE CLINICAL TRIAL
Pfizer said it will be the manufacturing and distribution system for vaccine technology developed by German pharmaceutical company BioNTech.
Clinical trial participants in Germany were dosed last week, and Pfizer said the first U.S. participants have also started getting the vaccine. In the U.S., the first stage of the study is taking place at four places: New York University School of Medicine in New York City; University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore; University of Rochester School of Medicine in Rochester, New York; and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
The plan is to test the vaccine on 360 healthy volunteers for the first stage, adding up to 8,000 volunteers by the end of the second stage.
“A typical vaccine takes 10 to 15 years to take to market, sometimes longer. Now we’re trying to bring a vaccine to market in one to two years, so they are trying to develop these vaccines at warp speed,” Sullivan said, adding that previous vaccine development for MIRS and SARS is informing and speeding up the COVID-19 project.
The clinical trial supply will be manufactured at plants in Andover, Massachusetts, and Chesterfield, Missouri.
The Portage facility would handle manufacturing and distribution should the vaccine prove successful. In anticipation of that, Pfizer is investing to scale up capacity and infrastructure to allow for the production of millions of doses in 2020 and hundreds of millions in 2021.
HOW IT WOULD WORK
Vaccine technology has gone from using live viruses to inert viruses to proteins from viruses. In the case of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, it’s a manufactured protein that delivers a code without using any actual biological material from the virus. A programmed genetic code would deliver the information to your body’s RNA to create antibodies to fight off COVID-19.
”This is actually very new vaccine technology. There are no human vaccines licensed using messenger RNA technology,” Sullivan said. “This has never been done in humans before, so if this works, it will be a huge leap forward in vaccine technology.”
But he said that even if everything goes perfectly, it would still be the end of the year before a vaccine is developed and several more months before it is delivered.
While there is optimism, the clinical trial does not mean a cure. Around the world, several vaccine trials are underway.
“We have to temper our expectations a little bit and realize it could be longer than we think and it’s certainly possible it might never happen,” he said. “I think the earliest we can realistically hope for a vaccine is maybe, maybe, at the end of this year.”
Even if a vaccine is approved, early doses will go to first responders and those with compromised immunity, then roll out to the general public.
Sullivan said people should not take the announcement of the trial as a sign to stop being careful.
“We need to continue with our best mitigation efforts to reduce the spread of the virus and unfortunately that means social distancing, wearing masks, washing your hands all the time,” he said. “There’s always the possibility that none of those things come true and we don’t get a vaccination for this.”