With coronavirus diagnoses continuing to climb, New Jersey officials welcomed news Monday that a COVID-19 vaccine now in clinical trials appears to be highly effective. While many challenges remain, they suggested if all goes as planned a vaccine could be approved within weeks and available for widespread distribution in April 2021.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced early Monday that the vaccine it has developed appears to be 90% effective in protecting adults against the virus — a better outcome than many expected and nearly double the protection offered by some influenza inoculations, experts noted.
“The good news is that a vaccine is on the horizon,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a previously scheduled media briefing hours later. He warned that New Jersey’s second wave of coronavirus continues to grow, with more than 9,000 new cases diagnosed since Thursday, an average of nearly 2,400 daily.
Immunizations possible by spring
Murphy said White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci told him over the weekend that if federal officials approve the Pfizer vaccine — or one of the other candidates — in the coming weeks, immunizations could be available to the general public by the spring.
Until then, Murphy said we are in a “six-month race to the finish line,” and reiterated the need to continue to wear masks, maintain social distance and resist so-called pandemic fatigue. He also announced a 10 p.m. curfew for indoor bars and restaurants and suspended interstate high school athletics in an effort to better control the spread of the disease.
“Let’s focus on these upcoming six months. This is not forever or always,” Murphy said of the new business restrictions. “Let’s get through the remainder of this fall and winter together. Let’s work harder knowing that if we can beat back this pandemic today, we can ultimately defeat it for good this spring.”
State officials have drafted an initial plan for distributing a COVID-19 vaccine once approved, with a goal of immunizing 70% of the eligible population — or about 4.7 million adults — within six months after the vaccine is widely available. Supplies will eventually be plentiful, they have said, although convincing people to be vaccinated may be a challenge, given a poll that suggests one-third of doctors and more than half of nurses surveyed may have concerns about getting the vaccine when first approved.
But in an interview with CBS 60 Minutes that aired Sunday, state health Commissioner Judy Persichilli raised concerns about the potential limited availability of vaccines initially, when state officials want to focus on protecting priority frontline health workers. The state’s plan calls for roughly 500,000 high-risk health care employees to be vaccinated first, when the first batch of approved vaccines is ready.
Protecting frontline workers
Persichilli said federal officials told her they would initially provide New Jersey enough to cover 50,000 people — or one in 10 of the priority individuals identified — with another similar-sized batch to follow. The state’s calculation assumes each person needs two doses, as Pfizer’s vaccine requires.
But on Monday Persichilli said she was expecting a “capacity update” from federal officials later that day and suggested New Jersey may actually receive a larger initial shipment than first expected. The state’s vaccine task force is slated to meet again on Thursday, she said, at which time members plan to discuss various distribution scenarios based on the latest developments.
Murphy, a first-term Democrat, also embraced comments by President-elect Joe Biden, who outlined plans for his coronavirus task force Monday and reiterated his promise to follow the science to help the nation respond to the pandemic, which has infected nearly 10 million Americans. In New Jersey, nearly 257,000 cases have been diagnosed since March, including some 16,400 fatalities likely linked to the disease.
Biden — who has issued a 7-point plan to combat COVID-19 — also underscored the need to continue basic infection-control measures as the work to finalize a vaccine continues. “A mask remains the most potent weapon against the virus. Today’s news (from Pfizer) won’t change that reality,” he said. “We can save tens of thousands of lives if everybody would just wear a mask for the next few months.”
Dr. Don Liss, chief medical officer of New Jersey health insurance giant Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, agreed that with Pfizer’s announcement, it was indeed “a good day for science.” While the trial is limited in its size, if the vaccine prevented COVID-19 infections in nine out of 10 cases, the efficacy rate is “way higher than what I was expecting,” Liss said.
Logistics of distribution
Significant challenges remain when it comes to the logistics of distributing the vaccine and tracking administration, Liss said. Pfizer’s version requires “ultra-cold storage” — at temperatures below minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit — technology currently in place at few facilities, he said.
State Department of Health medical director Dr. Edward Lifshitz also hailed Pfizer’s announcement of the 90% efficacy rate, which he said would “exceed expectations” and be “tremendous news,” if it holds in wider testing. He noted that even those who are not fully protected against COVID-19 — the remaining 10% — could experience less severe symptoms if they are infected.
But Lifshitz warned that much remains unknown about any vaccine, including how well it protects people across ages and demographics. It is not clear how long protection from a vaccine lasts, he added, or how immunization impacts the likelihood of transmitting the disease.
“There’s an awful lot that we don’t know yet,” Lifshitz said. “I’ll just start by saying it’s extremely positive, but extremely early.”