The world jumped with joy on Monday after Pfizer and its German vaccine partner, BioNTech, announced preliminary trial data showing that experimental COVID-19 vaccine, BNT162, is 90 percent effective in preventing the coronavirus, the highest efficacy rate reported by a COVID vaccine effort by far.
The vaccine is expected to clear FDA’s emergency use authorization later this month upon the release of safety data.
Even better, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla confirmed on Monday that the vaccine will be available for free for all Americans. The U.S. government has committed to buying 100 million doses, at about $20 each, by the end of this year, with the possibility to purchase another 500 million doses next year. (The development of the vaccine was not backed by U.S. government funding.) It’s likely, the company said, that 15-20 million people could have it within six months.
However, a big challenge lies ahead as to how Pfizer and BioNTech will distribute the vaccine to the hands of Americans.
The two companies’ vaccine, which is based on a novel technology using synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) to activate the immune system against COVID-19, needs to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 F) or lower temperature at all times. Considering the fact the vaccine comes in two doses, shipping it in the U.S. and around the globe will likely be a major logistics issue.
“The cold chain is going to be one of the most challenging aspects of delivery of this vaccination,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Reuters on Monday. “This will be a challenge in all settings because hospitals even in big cities do not have storage facilities for a vaccine at that ultra-low temperature.”
According to Reuters, even the most advanced hospitals in the U.S. don’t have the storage capacity for such a vaccine. “We’re talking about a vaccine that needs storage at minus 70 or 80… We’re a major medical center and we don’t have storage capacity like this,” said Gregory Poland, a virologist and vaccine researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Another promising COVID-19 vaccine made by Moderna, which is also mRNA-based and comes in two doses, does not require such deep-freezing; it can be kept at minus 20 degrees Celcius. Some of the other vaccine frontrunners, such as Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine developed using a proven vaccine platform, only requires standard refrigeration. However, except for Pfizer and Moderna, all other vaccine frontrunners, including AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax and Sanofi, are currently behind schedule due to unexpected side effects found in late-stage trials.
A Pfizer spokeswoman said the company is working closely with federal and state officials on how to ship the vaccine from its distribution centers in the U.S and around the globe.
The U.S. government has secured access to hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses from the drugmakers mentioned above. The first batch will likely be available to high-risk groups, such as health care workers and people living in nursing homes.