Amid a global tragedy, the striking effectiveness of vaccines against the coronavirus stands out as one of the pandemic’s few good news stories for humanity.
And the vaccines are the success story that, so far, has kept on going. Vaccinations are proving to be just as effective in the real world as they were in clinical trials, while remaining highly protective against the more contagious variants spreading worldwide. And two recent studies found that immunity to the virus could last for years.
While some viruses, most notably HIV, have eluded vaccination efforts for decades, SARS-CoV-2 has turned out to be an ideal target.
“It’s going to sound odd, but the truth is we humans sort of lucked out,” said James Musser, a pathologist at Houston Methodist Hospital. “It doesn’t always go this way with vaccines.”
In November, initial reports of the stunning 95% efficacy of the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna came as a breakthrough moment just ahead of a crushing surge in US cases. Those results were far above the 50% efficacy threshold for shots set by the FDA in October of last year, and they well exceeded the 70% to 75% bar that some, including Anthony Fauci, chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had initially hoped for.
“Nobody really expected it to be this good,” said vaccinologist George Rutherford of the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s remarkable. It’s why we invested in molecular biology for the last 40 years.”
But getting everyone immunized with these remarkable vaccines remains a huge challenge. Even as the US returns to more normal life, with more than 40% of the population fully vaccinated and a goal of 70% having at least one shot by July 4, the rest of the world continues to face severe outbreaks. Less than 6% of the global population has been vaccinated, with more than 60 countries having administered fewer than five shots for every 100 people in their population. Globally, at least 3.7 million people have died of COVID.
That’s left countries clamoring for more vaccine options, even ones that are less effective than those authorized in the US. On Monday, the World Health Organization authorized China’s CoronaVac shots, an older kind of vaccine made from inactivated viral particles, for its global vaccine-sharing program. It is only about 50% effective in preventing an infection, but studies show it reduces the risk of severe disease.
“The world desperately needs multiple COVID-19 vaccines to address the huge access inequity across the globe,” the WHO’s Mariângela Simão said in a statement announcing the authorization. And on Thursday, the Biden administration unveiled a plan to share 25 million vaccines worldwide, three-quarters of them through the WHO’s COVAX program, the first step toward sharing at least 80 million doses by the end of June.
“The basic bottom line on this is that the United States is not doing this as some kind of back-and-forth deal where we’re getting something for what we’re giving,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at the White House briefing announcing the change. “We are giving these for a single purpose; it is the purpose of ending this pandemic.”
That we can talk about ending the pandemic with vaccines at all is partly due to good luck and partly due to decades of research preparing for such a deadly virus.
A perfectly normal virus
Vaccines have been a triumph of science in the last century, eradicating smallpox and drastically curbing polio, rabies, and measles. But there have also been disappointments: We still have no vaccines…