In the last week there has been lots of news focused on potential COVID-19 vaccines, including coverage of announcements by Pfizer and BioNTech, the teams working on the Sputnik V vaccine and most recently by Moderna. Responding to the reports, Professor Anita Simonds, President of the European Respiratory Society (ERS), said: “These announcements are very encouraging in the fight against COVID-19 and ERS reiterates its support for the development of safe and effective vaccines that can prevent and protect against SARS-CoV-2. Vaccines will play a very important role in controlling this virus alongside measures that are currently recommended to slow the spread, such as frequent hand washing, wearing a face covering and physical distancing.
“There are around 50 ongoing COVID vaccine trials, 12 of which are at the phase 3 stage and are undergoing large-scale efficacy tests, so we are likely to see more reports like this in the coming months. We are all hopeful for a return to a more normal existence as the pandemic has been a very challenging time for everyone, but it is important to keep the reports in perspective, as they are based on announcements of interim analyses only.”
What important details are not yet clear?
Of the vaccines reported on so far, the announcements are based on interim analyses. Although these early findings are encouraging, the full data have not been assessed and importantly, detailed outcomes including safety data have not been published or scrutinised yet. However, it is important to stress that while the vaccine evaluation process has been compressed in time, it remains as stringent as with any other vaccine, and indeed some of the trials are larger and more comprehensive than with previous vaccines.
Regarding the efficacy of the vaccines, we must keep in mind that just because one vaccine is reportedly 90% effective, it does not mean it is better than one of 70% efficacy for everyone. This depends on the populations studied; for example, it will be helpful to know the percentage of older people and those with different ethnicities included in the studies.
Due to the incomplete data, we also do not know yet:
- how long any immunity triggered by the vaccines lasts, and whether this consists of neutralising antibodies and/or T cell response.
- whether the vaccines can prevent severe COVID-19 in those who contract the virus.
- how effectively the vaccines work in the elderly, who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.
- if the vaccines could slow transmission rates if used widely in populations.
From a practical point of view, some of the vaccines require two shots and others require storage at low temperatures, which will also make a significant difference to the logistics of delivery.
How soon could these vaccines be available?
All potential vaccines that are approved for use in the European Union are subject to a thorough review for safety and efficacy by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Until the vaccines are approved, it is not possible for countries to begin their vaccination programmes. Find out how the EMA regulates and approves vaccines.
If approved, vaccine programmes are likely to initially prioritise hospital staff and care workers due to their frequent contact with vulnerable people, as well as the elderly and those who are most at risk of severe COVID-19.
Professor Simonds added: “While there are unanswered questions about these vaccines at present, it is impressive how rapidly scientists have worked to develop these potentially life-saving treatments. However, ultimately it is not vaccines that will save lives, but vaccination. We must ensure there is maximum transparency in the development process and that the public have full confidence in our regulatory system.
“Healthcare professionals have an essential role in this regard and ERS is honoured to be part of the European Medicines Agency’s taskforce on COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. When the full data is available, and regulators approve the rolling-out of the first COVID-19 vaccines, ERS will offer its support and encourage all who are eligible to get vaccinated.”