Hello! This week’s introduction is from The Verge‘s health reporter, Nicole Wetsman.
When researchers at pharmaceutical companies around the world started developing COVID-19 vaccines, experts reminded everyone to temper expectations. Vaccines usually take years. The frontrunners were made using unproven technology,
and there were dozens of ways things could go wrong. The Food and Drug Administration said it would be fine with anything over 50 percent effective.
Then, last month, Pfizer announced that it had a vaccine, and it was 95 percent effective. Moderna did too. It was better news than anyone dared hope for. Stéphane Bancel, chief executive at Moderna, said
he cried when he first heard the data. With the FDA’s blessing, With the FDA’s blessing, which came in late Friday night
, health care workers in the United States could start getting shots next week, less than a year after the first case of COVID-19 was documented in the country.
Scientists pulled off the impossible thing, and that’s worth celebrating. It is a remarkable, awe-inspiring achievement. I would say it’s miraculous, but calling it a miracle takes away from the work that went into making it possible — both over the past few months, and during the years of basic research on coronaviruses
and gene-based vaccines
We’re celebrating as much as we are because we need this vaccine to turn the tide of the pandemic. But there’s a sad backstory to this party. We only need this vaccine so desperately because the United States failed at doing the hard, basic public health work. Providing contact tracing, ample testing, masks, gloves, and clear policies aren’t as exciting as the moonshot of a vaccine, but if the US government had done them well, the country wouldn’t have been so reliant on the impossible.
We’re lucky that the moonshot paid off. There was always a chance it wasn’t going to work, and some vaccines have hit serious roadblocks. On Friday, the drug company Sanofi announced a setback
— it can’t start late-stage clinical trials this month, as planned, and its vaccine won’t be ready until the second half of 2021. There’s a world where Pfizer and Moderna hit snags, too, or where they didn’t work quite as well.
Even though they did work, the development of these vaccines took nearly a year. In that year, hundreds of thousands of people in the US died. They didn’t have to. Public health measures are designed to slow the spread of the virus — saving lives, and buying scientists time to develop life-saving vaccines. Doing the hard work would have made it so more people could have survived to benefit from them.
Instead, we’re getting a vaccine just as COVID-19 is surging out of control across the country. Writing in The Atlantic
, Juliette Kayyem, former assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security, said that the rest of the pandemic would unfold on a split screen
. On one side, continuous death and disease. On the other, the start of a vaccination campaign that could keep people safe from the virus. Thursday, an independent committee recommended that the FDA authorize the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. That same day, over 3,000 people in the US died from the disease.
Here in the US, we’re counting down the days before vaccines are widely available, knowing that every day of delay means more illness and more death. That’s not true everywhere. My dad recently told me that he had a meeting with some people living in Australia, and that he asked them what they thought of the vaccine news. Turns out, they didn’t really care. Australia controlled the pandemic so well that life is essentially normal
— it doesn’t need a vaccine as an escape hatch. They did the hard thing, so they didn’t have to rely on the impossible.
Here’s what else happened this week.