Less than optimistic view of Pfizer vaccine

I heard an interview with Laurie Garrett last night on Democracy Now. Ms. Garrett, a distinguished science journalist and the author of the apparently prescient 1995 book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance, is not quite as optimistic as the stock market regarding Pfizer’s recent announcement of a potentially successful coronavirus vaccine. So I looked up Ms. Garrett’s recent article in Foreign Policy magazine.

Ms. Garrett seems generally pessimistic, because cases are surging, the United States has roughly one-fifth of known cases worldwide, and possibly one-third (!) of the population will probably refuse a vaccine, once one is available. Though optimistic that President-Elect Biden has appointed a Covid task force, she also notes that the present lame-duck administration will be in charge for more than two months and the presidential scientific advisor, Scott Atlas, advocates “what amounts to a do-nothing approach to Covid-19 control” (as we noted here). Ms. Garrett foresees a “mass exodus” of health officials from the government this fall.

What about the vaccine? Ms. Garrett says,

But let’s be clear about what this Pfizer study shows so far: For 90 percent of the volunteers who got the vaccine (as opposed to a placebo), SARS-CoV-2 infection did not occur for a study period of seven days.

Seven days. Nothing more is known.

If that protection turns out to be durable for, say, a full year, the Pfizer vaccine might be deemed a spectacular success. But nobody is going to wait a year to find out. The moment the FDA approves the product, Pfizer says in its press release, “we expect to produce globally up to 50 million vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.”

The vaccine, however, is made of messenger RNA and as such “is unlike any vaccine ever used, for any disease.” It requires storage at a temperature of -103 °F (or -75 °C in God’s units) – well below typical refrigeration temperatures, and there is apparently a shortage of dry ice (-78 °C).

Finally, in a generally positive article praising President-Elect Biden’s Covid-19 task force and also his plan to ensure, among other things, that “public health decisions are made by public health professionals,” Peter Lurie of Center for Science in the Public Interest observes that the claimed 90 % is well beyond the minimum requirement of the FDA. He wants to know, however,

How many cases were in the treated and placebo groups? How serious were the cases? How many people have been followed in the trial and for how long? How big is the vaccine’s safety database and what does it show?

and, in particular, he notes that Pfizer

pointedly declined support from Operation Warp Speed, [and] may not be subject to the same constraints upon pricing that those who signed up for the program might feel obligated to follow.