Coronavirus vaccine timeline: When will one be widely available?

November 20, 2020 

With the dark winter months looming, there's one glimmer of hope in the fight against the COVID-19 crisis.

Two, to be exact.

Vaccine candidates from Pfizer, and its German partner BioNTech, and Moderna have shown to be 95 percent effective in ongoing trials.

The promising results have prompted Pfizer to seek approval from the Federal Drug and Food Administration for emergency use, with Moderna expected to follow suit in the coming weeks.

But while federal health officials remain optimistic that help is on the way, the availability of vaccines doesn't equate to an immediate cure to coronavirus.

Here is a realistic timeline of when an effective vaccine could hit the shelves for all Americans.

When will a vaccine be available?

Millions of doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should be available to certain groups by the end of December, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

"We expect to have about 40 million doses of these two vaccines available for distribution pending FDA authorization -- enough to vaccinate about 20 million of our most vulnerable Americans," Azar said at a Nov. 18 press briefing. "And production of course would continue to ramp up after that."

Globally, Pfizer has said it could have 50 million doses by the year's end.

A different projection, according to information presented to the National Academy of Medicine in late November, said about 25 million could become available in the US in December, 30 million in January and 35 million more in February and March.

The Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed has worked with states to determine how many doses they'd need to cover the populations offered a vaccine first.

Azar said once FDA gives the green light, millions of doses will be shipped within the first 24 hours.

"So my message is hope and help are on the way," he said.

Emergency approval from the FDA, however, is not the same as full approval, meaning anyone who gets the shot will receive a "fact sheet" listing the potential benefits and risks as the studies continue, Dr. Marion Gruber told the Associated Press.

Who will get a vaccine first?

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will have the final say on who gets first dibs, and Azar has said the initial batch of vaccinations will go to the "most vulnerable Americans" first.

That committee is following guidance from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which advises divvying up the vaccine distribution in phases.

The first phase includes front-line health workers and first responders, people with underlying conditions that put them at high risk of infection, and adults age 65 and older living in overcrowded settings, including nursing homes, homeless shelters, prison, jails and long-term health care facilities.

Phase one makes up about 15 percent of the US population.

Phase two encompasses K-12 teachers, school staff, child care workers, people with underlying conditions that put them at moderately higher risk, public transit workers, those in the food supply system, and those in homeless shelters or group homes, and prison and jail inmates, as well as staffers there. These groups make up about 30 to 35 percent of the population.

Phase three -- which covers about 40 to 45 percent of Americans -- includes young adults, children and workers in industries such as hotels, banks, higher education, gyms and factories. However, the guidance says immunization in children will depend on safety testing.

All other Americans not included in the first three phases are covered in phase four.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said average, healthy Americans could expect to get their first doses as early as April and through July, he told USA Today.

How much will the vaccines cost?

The federal government, which has a $1.95 billion contract to buy millions of Pfizer-BioNTech doses, as well those from other successful candidates, has promised the shots will be free.

That said, Pfizer-BioNTech has set an initial price at $19.50 a dose, while Moderna, which has a $1.5 billion contract for 100 million doses, will cost taxpayers $25 a dose, Forbes reported.

Two doses three weeks apart are needed for full immunization.

Will a vaccine offer complete protection against COVID-19?

Immunization may keep you from getting severely ill but "won't necessarily prevent you from getting infected," Fauci said.

"The issue is that you're not going to be completely protected against a degree of infection that you might not even notice that you might be able to spread to others," the top doc said in a virtual chat with The Hastings Center.

"Which is the reason why the message you may have heard me say over the last couple weeks in the media is that getting vaccinated with a highly efficacious vaccine does not mean that you're going to abandon completely public health measures."

It will also take time to build up herd immunity, when a large portion of a population becomes immune to a disease, through vaccination -- and that's only if enough people decide to get jabbed.

A poll in August found that 35 percent of respondents said they won't get a coronavirus vaccine when one becomes available.

But if most of the US is vaccinated by summer and fall, Fauci said then we can look toward getting back to normal.

"Then you can start talking about this umbrella or blanket of protection on society that would diminish dramatically the risk of a person being exposed or even being infected," he told USA Today. "When so many people are protected, that's when you get into the real herd immunity."

With Post wires

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