While COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket, and variations of stay-at-home orders are rolling out throughout the United States, the rare bright spots of good news continue to trickle in from the vaccine development front. Because as the case counts continue to climb, there is a visible light at the end of the tunnel — one that is getting fractionally brighter every few days. Today’s injection of luminescence comes care of Pfizer which has revised its vaccine’s effectiveness rate from 90 percent to 95 percent effective as of Wednesday (Nov 18).
“Efficacy was consistent across age, race and ethnicity demographics. The observed efficacy in adults over 65 years of age was over 94 percent,” Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech said in a joint statement.
Pfizer also confirmed that this high efficacy rate was combined with relatively few negative side effects observed since the trial began in July. From here, Pfizer has said it will seek U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization “within days.” They will also be submitting their latest clinical trial data to regulatory agencies around the world to speed its authorization in as many geographic locations as fast as possible.
Based on current projections, the companies expect to produce globally up to 50 million vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021. In the U.S., Pfizer has manufacturing locations in St. Louis, Kalamazoo, Mich. and Andover, Mass., plus one in the Belgian city of Puurs. In addition, the companies have confirmed that BioNTech’s German sites will also be leveraged for global supply.
Notably, a vaccine announced Monday (Nov. 16) by Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech Moderna also boasts a 95 percent efficacy rate, but doesn’t require extreme cold storage to remain viable.
But logistics aren’t quite everything. Because, as the old expression goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. And there are some reasons to suspect the same might just go for flu vaccines and American consumers, at least some of them. PYMNTS’ most recent consumer survey found that a fair number — 37.9 percent — “strongly” plan to get a COVID vaccination when it’s available. But they’re slightly outnumbered by the 38.4 percent of people who say they “definitely” or “probably” won’t. That leaves a little under a quarter of consumers (23 percent) still unsure if they will. According to medical experts, for the vaccine to create the kind of herd immunity necessary for something like normal life to resume, 80 percent of people will need to get the vaccine.
A Tenuous Relationship With The Flu Shot
While the PYMNTS study was specific to the COVID vaccine, it’s worth noting that Americans have a suspicious attitude toward flu vaccines. Most Americans (60 percent) as of last year thought getting a flu shot was the best preventive measure for avoiding the flu out there, but only a little over half of all American adults actually planned to get a flu vaccine, according to a survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID).
Children do a little bit better. About 65 percent of American children were vaccinated against the flu in 2019, and numbers for both children and adults are expected to increase in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the strong push from public health officials to avoid twin epidemics. But the expectation is that even with an increased press for wider flu vaccination those figures will see a sizable minority of American adults skipping their flu shot this year, as the PYMNTS research shows.
So why do people skip their flu shot? Reasons vary, but a fairly common thread that runs through is that people need a very compelling reason to motivate themselves to do something they really don’t want to do. Protection from a disease provides a strong incentive, but it seems only if the protection itself is strong as well. In the case of the flu vaccine it’s not trading a certainty of discomfort for certainty of protection against the disease so much as trading certain discomfort for a coin-flip chance of avoiding the flu.
CDC officials and immunization advocates say avoidance of flu shots is based on unfounded fears based on myths, ignorance, and people’s belief that they will avoid the flu without the vaccine. “CDC researchers say parents who don’t vaccinate their children against the flu seem to fall mostly into two camps,” said Healthline.com. “There are those who say the vaccine was not promoted or recommended by their child’s physician. And there are those who simply believe that their child isn’t susceptible to the flu because their kid is otherwise healthy and does not have a high-risk condition.”
However, this year it’s a dangerous coin flip.
“We may see peaks of flu and COVID-19 at the same time, which could overwhelm the health care system, strain testing capacity and potentially reduce our ability to catch and treat both respiratory illnesses effectively,” said Sarah Clark, co-director of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health. “Our report finds that even during the pandemic, some parents don’t see the flu vaccine as more urgent or necessary. This heightens concerns about how the onset of flu season may compound challenges in managing COVID-19.”
At best, the annual flu vaccine offers 40 percent to 60 percent efficacy in a year when the virus strains chosen for the vaccine are a good match for the flu strains that actually end up in heavy circulation. Most years that match is achieved and that roughly 50 percent efficacy rate is hit. But there have also been some pretty notable misses in recent memory — the H1N1 flu strain, which ended up being very virulent and killed hundreds of thousands worldwide, wasn’t covered at all by the 2009 flu vaccine.
What all of those illnesses, and a handful of others that have gone unmentioned, have in common other than being dangerous and miserable for the person who contracts them, is having highly efficacious vaccines. According to the CDC, the MMR vaccine is 95 percent effective in preventing measles, mumps or rubella, the polio vaccine is 99 percent effective when taken in three doses, the smallpox vaccine was 95 percent effective and eradicated the disease and the even the humble chicken pox vaccine is 90 percent effective.
These are efficacy rates that much more closely match up with the reported protection offered by the COVID-19 vaccine, which seems to have something of an edge over the flu shot when it comes to getting consumers to roll up their sleeves and sit for a shot.