Doctors Explain When You Can Realistically Expect to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

Korin Miller
·6 min read
Photo credit: FotoDuets - Getty Images
Photo credit: FotoDuets - Getty Images

From Prevention

  • Pfizer and Moderna have reported separate vaccine candidates that are more than 90% effective at preventing COVID-19 infection in people who participated in phase 3 clinical trials.

  • Millions of doses of both vaccines are expected to be produced by the end of 2020.

  • Doctors explain the logistics of distributing a COVID-19 vaccine nationally, who will be the first to receive it, and when to expect availability.

Finally, there is some good news during the COVID-19 pandemic. Biopharmaceutical company Pfizer received an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration. Pfizer’s vaccine, which is reported to be more than 90% effective at preventing COVID-19 in people who received the vaccine as part of its stage 3 clinical trial, is now being shipped to locations across the country.

But Pfizer won’t have the only COVID-19 vaccine out there: Biotechnology company Moderna has also received an EUA for its vaccine candidate, which is reported to be nearly 95% effective at preventing COVID-19.

The news offers a glimmer of hope, especially as novel coronavirus infections continue to hit an all-time high in the U.S. But it also raises some major questions: How will the COVID-19 vaccines be distributed? And who will receive it first? Here’s everything we know so far.

First, what should I know about the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines?

Pfizer shared in early November that its candidate vaccine is more than 90% effective in keeping people in phase 3 clinical trials safe from COVID-19 infection. Pfizer’s study, which has enrolled 43,538 participants, has reported no serious side effects or safety concerns. The company should be able to make up to 50 million doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

Moderna’s clinical trial, known as the COVE study, enrolled more than 30,000 people in the U.S. and found that its vaccine was 94.5% effective at preventing COVID-19 infection in those who received two doses. Like the Pfizer vaccine, it has no reported serious safety concerns. Moderna says it can produce 20 million doses of its vaccine by the end of 2020, and 500 million to 1 billion doses globally in 2021.

Both vaccines, which do not contain the actual novel coronavirus, use a new technology called messenger RNA (mRNA) to create an immune response in people after they receive two doses of the shot. That means that these vaccines cannot infect someone or make them sick with COVID-19.

However, if you have a history of a severe allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in a particular vaccine, or have a history of a severe allergic reaction to any vaccine or injectable therapy, ask your doctor if you should get the COVID-19 vaccine, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How will the COVID-19 vaccines be handled and distributed?

“There are major logistical challenges in getting the vaccine distributed to every part of the country—and the world,” says infectious disease expect Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. This includes equitable distribution and making sure that diverse populations can be reached.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

First, the vaccine has to be manufactured, and then shipped to locations that have signed up to receive it. “The Pfizer vaccine requires special shipping and handling because it has to be kept very, very cold,” a frigid -94°F, explains William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “It won’t go to your average doctor’s office or pharmacy—they won’t be able to store it.” Instead, it will have to be distributed to locations with specialty storage containers.

The Moderna vaccine, however, seems as if it will be handled “the way normal vaccines are handled,” Dr. Schaffner says. That means it can be shipped on dry ice and stored in regular freezer temperatures (-4°F) in pharmacies and doctor’s offices.

The vaccine will be free, he notes, because it was funded by taxpayer dollars. However, there may be administration costs for providers, like doctor’s offices and pharmacies. (It’s unclear at this point if insurance companies will cover that.)

Who will get the COVID-19 vaccine first?

The CDC has released initial framework for this. Here’s what distribution is expected to look like, provided there are no issues with supply:

  • Phase 1a: Healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents will be the first to receive the vaccine.

  • Phase 1b: Essential workers, including teachers, police, firefighters, utility workers, corrections officers, and transportation employees, will be next.

  • Phase 1c: This includes adults with underlying conditions that put them at significantly higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease or death. Older adults (age 65 and up) are also included in this group.

Top government officials, including President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, are also receiving the vaccine to ensure continuity of government.

The CDC has not addressed distribution beyond phase 1. However, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released framework for this in October, which has not yet been approved. That framework also put teachers, school staff, and workers in the food supply chain in phase 2. It also included the following phases:

  • Phase 3: This group includes young adults, children, and workers in industries such as colleges and universities, hotels, banks, exercise facilities, and factories “that are both important to the functioning of society and pose moderately high risk of exposure because there are likely to be some protective measures implemented in these work settings.”

  • Phase 4: This includes everyone else in the U.S. who did not have access to the vaccine in previous phases.

When will the COVID-19 vaccine be widely available?

First rounds of the vaccine are currently being distributed, says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor of medicine and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York.

Most people will likely have to wait until next year to be vaccinated. “It is unlikely that the general public will have access to the vaccine until late spring to summer of 2021,” Dr. Adalja says.

He adds that “it is very likely that there will be multiple vaccines that receive Emergency Use Authorization and are distributed to individual states for vaccine programs.” So, the vaccine you’re able to receive may be different from the one your relative who lives across the country receives.

For now, public health officials are still sorting through the details—but moving quickly as cases continue to surge in the U.S. “By March and April there will be more widespread availability. At least, that’s what I hope,” Dr. Russo says. “But I’m an optimist.”

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