When Pfizer announced on Monday that an early analysis of its coronavirus vaccine trial suggested that the vaccine was more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19, the world reacted with surprise, relief and nearly unbridled optimism.
Scientists and health experts hailed the announcement by Pfizer and its trial partner, the German drugmaker BioNTech, as the breakthrough they had been waiting for; the stock market soared to new heights; and Joe Biden, who two days earlier had been declared the new president-elect, greeted the news as a sign that the global pandemic might be on the verge of being controlled. “I congratulate the brilliant women and men who helped produce this breakthrough and to give us such cause for hope,” Biden said.
Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, perhaps the nation’s most respected authority on coronavirus and someone who has been careful to mute overly optimistic predictions of a quick vaccine, signaled that this was a momentous achievement. ““I’m going to look at the data, but I trust Pfizer. I trust the FDA. These are colleagues of mine for decades, the career scientists,” Fauci said in an interview on MSNBC. “If they look at this data, and they say this data is solid, let’s go ahead and approve it, I promise you, I will take the vaccine, and I will recommend that my family take the vaccine.”
I, too, felt enormous excitement when I heard that news. But for me, the success of the Pfizer vaccine is a personal one.
While I’m not one of the doctors or one of the many scientists who spent months working around the clock, I played my own role in the development of the Pfizer vaccine. For the past three months, I have been a volunteer participant in the Pfizer vaccine trial study. Like the many other participants in medical trials, it’s my blood and my body that helped Pfizer test the safety and efficacy of the coronavirus vaccine.
You see, I am patient number 1133. I joined the Pfizer trial in August at the Yale New Haven Hospital study site. A lot of people in my position, as the mother of three, might not jump to join a medical trial. But I was convinced that I had to do it. I heard on television that they were running large-scale coronavirus trials and needed volunteers. I immediately signed up on every site I could find.
As someone who has struggled with health anxiety, being a medical trial participant wasn’t an obvious life choice. But I felt I had to. After living in New York during those horrific months of March and April, when the virus was first raging through the city, the collective loss of so many human souls was indelible, impossible to shake. I had a front row seat for the carnage that the virus had wrought, and while my kids were watching re-runs of The Office, I was absorbing the tragedy unfolding around me.
The sounds and the smells of that particular period still haunt me, from the refrigerated trucks to the incredible inescapable crushing silence punctuated by the occasional screaming ambulance. Every day contained a lifetime of tragedy, A friend of a friend had a heart attack in his car in a hospital parking lot, four friends buried their fathers; the collective loss was crushing. I’m only 42 but it’s hard for me to imagine a time when those particular months won’t haunt me. My DNA has been irrevocably changed by the experience.
During those dark months in American life, the president of the United States used his televised daily coronavirus briefings to spread misinformation. He pumped up miracle cures while playing down the science of basic hand-washing and mask-wearing.
There was something so very bleak about living through a pandemic with a federal government that had completely utterly and totally rejected science. There was something so incredibly grim about watching the federal government fail its people on a scale that seemed unimaginable. I was living under an administration that was taking radical anti-science measures. Participating in this trial was one tangible way I could reject Trumpism and embrace science. I also knew I could write about the experience and perhaps that would make others feel more comfortable about taking the vaccine themselves.
The actual experience was surprisingly mundane. A nurse drew blood. I self-administered a coronavirus test. Two nurses came into the room and gave me a shot. Then, after waiting for about 30 minutes to make sure I didn’t have any kind of allergic reaction, I went home.
But I have to say that I am not totally surprised by the positive results. I had sort of suspected that the Pfizer vaccine’s efficacy number would be high because of the many casual conversations I’ve had with study doctors and other trial patients over the last three months, all of whom seemed optimistic about how the trials were going. One of the doctors even told me that “people had so few symptoms that they thought they were in the placebo arm of the study.” (I experienced no side effects except for a little fatigue—but who isn’t feeling tired these days?)
It’s important to note that this a double-blind study, which means one half of the study gets the vaccine and the other gets the placebo, so I won’t know which I got–the actual vaccine or the placebo—until the study gets unblinded.
Also the news that the vaccine is coming doesn’t mean the pandemic is behind us. While this trial is a very exciting tangible step, this is not the end of the pandemic. We still have months to go, and even when the vaccine is widely available, probably sometime between spring and summer of 2021, there will still be hurdles, including capacity and delivery. (The Pfizer vaccine, like the Moderna one, requires two shots, approximately 21 days apart.
Then there’s the question of vaccine hesitancy. Four years of Trumpism has been very bad for scientists and for American’s belief in science. You’ll remember that in 2007, a pre-presidency Donald Trump postulated that vaccines might be responsible for the uptick in autism (they’re not), an irresponsible statement he has never retracted. And only about half of Americans say they would take the COVID-19 vaccine, perhaps fearing it will be rushed to market before its safety has been proven. The good news about this coronavirus vaccine is that the efficacy is so high that it will take less time to get to herd immunity. And a new Biden administration, one that actually believes in science, may be able to convince more people that this vaccine will be safe.
This week, when my podcast colleague Rick Wilson and I interviewed Dr. Eric Topal, a noted medical researcher and author, he called the new vaccine a “super human vaccine,” the kind that, like the measles vaccine in the 1960s, could eradicate an illness with its efficacy.
Pfizer and Moderna aren’t the only players in this game, of course. There are still a lot of vaccine trials going on around the world and volunteers are needed. (My husband recently enrolled in a different vaccine trial.)
At the White House briefing on Friday, at which Trump tried to claim credit for the Pfizer vaccine and also refused to answer questions about when he would concede the election to Joe Biden, Moncef Slaoui, the person in charge of Operation Warp Speed, reiterated there is still much work to do. “I would like to take this opportunity to invite as many Americans as possible who would like to volunteer to participate in these clinical trials,” Slaoui said, “as that’s the only way we are able to achieve a demonstration of the safety and the efficacy of these vaccines.”
We have an opportunity to do good here. I am not a particularly brave person, but in a country with uncontrolled virus spread I’d much rather take my chances with the vaccine than with the virus. As I write this column, tens of thousands of Americans are getting infected with coronavirus.
You have a chance to save others and change the course of history. Will you do it? I did.