"We might be in for a very long wait."
The vaccine developed by a husband-and-wife pair of scientists in Germany through their company, BioNTech, was announced Nov. 9 by their partner, Pfizer, as more than 90-percent effective. This is great news. BioNTech has a so-called messenger RNA technology that is useful in rapidly producing a COVID-19 vaccine.
A vaccine that is only 70-percent effective is already very good. Vaccines for other diseases are only 50-percent effective and yet are used large scale year after year.
According to Pfizer, its mRNA-based vaccine candidate, BNT162b2, against SARS-CoV-2 has demonstrated evidence of efficacy against COVID-19 in 43,538 participants without prior evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in a Phase-3 study. The participants came from 150 clinical trial sites in six countries, including 39 US states. Six percent of the participants were Asians.
About 38,955 of the 43,538 received the vaccine; the other half got a placebo (not a vaccine). Pfizer reported an efficacy rate above 90 percent, at seven days after the second dose. This means that protection is achieved 28 days after the initiation of the vaccination, which consists of a two-dose schedule.
The US announced in August 2020 that an experimental COVID-19 vaccine needs only to be 50-percent safe to get its go signal.
No vaccine is 100-percent effective. But some have better effectiveness. That for measles, for instance, is 97 percent, if given in two doses.
I doubt, however, that the Pfizer vaccine will see the light of day in the Philippines over the next two years. There are problems.
One, the Pfizer vaccine will be produced in limited volumes –50 million to 100 million doses during the balance of 2020 and 1.3 billion next year.
Two, the vaccine is given in two doses, three weeks apart. So 100 million is good only for 50 million.
Three, the vaccine will be deployed first in Europe and in the United States. It will come to Asia, particularly Japan, much later.
Europe has 740 million people; US 330 million, or 1.07 billion people. Divide 1.3 billion by two, you get only 650 million. To have herd immunity or prevent repeated infections, you need to vaccinate up to 70 percent of the 1.07 billion people of Europe and USA. That means 1.4 billion doses times two or 2.8 billion. So for US and Europe alone, the Pfizer production won’t be enough. The herd immunity threshold for measles is as high as 94 percent.
In July, the US announced it would pay $1.6 billion to Novavax to expedite development of a COVID vaccine. Based in Maryland, Novavax has never brought a product to the market before. America’s Operation Warp Speed has invested $4 billion for a COVID vaccine development. The money went to six companies – including $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca and over $500 million to Moderna Therapeutics.
The Philippines has a population of 110 million. To achieve herd immunity from COVID-19, you need to vaccinate 77 million Filipinos – twice in three weeks. That’s 154 million doses.
Four, the vaccine requires extremely cold temperatures, as low as 80 to 90 degree Celsius. In transit, the vaccine remains good even as temperatures of 20 below zero. The Philippines has not facility to store such sensitive vaccines. Not only that, the storage facility should be as big as a football field. We don’t even have a decent football field. And we don’t have a refrigerated facility the size of a football field.
Five, the vaccine will be applied first on doctors and nurses, the so-called frontliners. Next are seniors in nursing homes. Third probably are the kids. Adults, like you and me, have very little chance of being vaccinated by Pfizer over the next two years.
Sixth, vaccines cost money, plenty of money, although governments claim they will inject it free. With a breakthrough vaccine, Pfizer could easily charge as much as P20,000 per two doses. Pfizer is a business. Not a humanitarian organization.
In fact, on the day Pfizer announced its successful vaccine, Nov. 9, its CEO, Albert Bourla, a Greek, had the incredible foresight to sell 60 percent of his Pfizer stockholdings.
It is not supposed to be insider trading, because he gave the instructions to sell at a certain price, as early as August 2020. That price was $41.99 per share, a bit short of the 52-week high of $41.99. Bourla made $5.6 million. Pfizer stocks rose in price by 15 percent when Bourla announced the breakthrough vaccine on Nov. 9. Bourla said the Pfizer vaccine is the “greatest medical advance in the last 100 years.” Wow.
For their part, BioNTech, of the husband-and-wife team of Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Ozlem Tureci, is now worth $21 billion. They are among the richest couples in Germany, according to the New York Times. “The two billionaires live with their teenage daughter in a modest apartment near their office. They ride bicycles to work. They do not own a car,” reports the Times.
What do we, penniless mortals, do then? Well, don’t pin much hopes on COVID vaccines. Just practice the three major health protocols -- wear masks, keep a six-foot distance from other humans, and wash your hands frequently. Cheaper – and surer – that way.