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Unprecedented: Fast track COVID vaccine provides excitement in medical community

“They are not going to approve any vaccine that does not pass the efficacy threshold, and if there's any concerns about safety."

NEW ORLEANS — Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci is calling the news about a promising coronavirus vaccine "just extraordinary." 

Later this month, pharmaceutical company Pfizer will ask for emergency use approval from the FDA.

It is an unprecedented time line. Vaccines can take five years to get on the market, but there is a reason this one is fast.

“You need to first come up with this formulation. You need to test it and then you go into production later, so the United States, we paid up front for 100 million doses of vaccine from Pfizer. We got a pretty good deal. We paid about $20 a dose,” explained Dr. Charles Stoecker, an Associate Professor of Health Economics at Tulane.

Early data show the Pfizer vaccine to be 90 percent effective. Peer reviews are still needed. In global clinical trials, there were only 94 infections in 44,000 study participants. The study is still ongoing, so results could change. The announcement sent company stock prices up.

“If this coronavirus vaccine is 90 percent effective, that's really exciting number. Now the other half of that is how long that protection lasts,” he said.

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Ochsner was one of the test sites for the Pfizer two-dose vaccine. About 300 local people enrolled before that closed. But if half the population won't get a flu vaccine, what about this one. Dr. Stoecker says speed does not mean testing steps were skipped. 

“We've seen that with regulators committing, that they are not going to approve any vaccine that does not pass the efficacy threshold, and if there's any concerns about safety.”

Decades ago, people were scared of the polio vaccine too. 

“My favorite anecdote from this time is, somebody had the good idea to get Elvis Presley up on stage and give him a dose in the arm, and so I’ve been trying to think what are the modern celebrities that we could get up there, you know, universally loved, and I’m going to nominate Dolly Parton,” said Dr. Stoecker.

Only baby boomers and half of Gen X have smallpox vaccine scars. The vaccine eradicated that virus and was stopped in 1972.   If enough people get a coronavirus vaccine, those who don't get one will have some protection from herd immunity.  

“You want the people around you to be immune as well so that they can protect you. If they can't get it, they can't give it to you,” he said.

And if all goes well with the  AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines, that could mean enough doses for widespread distribution next year.

The Pfizer vaccine is made with brand-new technology, which does not use the actual coronavirus. So there's no chance you could become infected from the shots.

For individuals interested in participating in future COVID-19 research, including vaccines or treatment trials, please reach out to COVIDvaccine@ochsner.org.

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