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Blair Horner: National Policy Moves From Vaccines To Vaccination

As the world continues to grapple with the deadly coronavirus pandemic, some potentially good medical news has developed.  In recent weeks, two major pharmaceutical companies claim to have developed vaccines that are far more successful than anyone had expected in protecting the public from COVID-19.

While these statements are welcome news, the reports are based on internal analyses that have not been independently reviewed.  Nevertheless, the reports – if borne out – are significant and potentially good news for the world.

Of course, it’s important for the public to stay vigilant.  These two companies – and the others that are sure to join with vaccines of their own – make money if their drugs are sold.  They have an incredible incentive to sugar-coat their findings and the underlying research.  The bad behavior of pharmaceutical companies over the decades should give all Americans legitimate concern over the release of as-yet-not-independently-verified data and should stiffen the resolve of federal regulators to rigorously validate safety and efficacy claims.

The two companies are longtime pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Moderna.  Pfizer announced its results first soon followed by Moderna.  Each claimed that their vaccines are about 95 percent effective.  Assuming that these claims are verified by independent reviews, the nation would move to the distribution phase where there are immense logistical issues that will need to be addressed.  Both vaccines require two dosages, three or four weeks apart depending on the vaccine.  One important challenge will be ensuring that people get both shots and that they receive the booster that correctly corresponds with the strain in their initial vaccine.  Late last week, Pfizer submitted its research and findings to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which approves medicines in America.

Adding to the challenges, both vaccines require very careful handling.  Both must be kept cold, in refrigerators and freezers. Pfizer’s vaccine requires storage at an incredibly cold minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.  Safely shipping and storing these vaccines for distribution will be an incredible logistical challenge. 

Then there is the challenge of distribution to people.  Under ideal circumstances the logistics of transporting these medicines from manufacturing facilities to the public would be daunting – in the U.S. alone that’s more than 600 million dosages, two for each American.  Misinformation, disinformation, public skepticism, and Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, all exacerbate the challenge.

The challenges of getting the medicines from the factories to local storage facilities and then administered to hundreds of millions – billions worldwide – is going to be an incredible feat.

Government will, of course, be the linchpin for a successful national vaccination effort.  There are no other institutions with the capacity and authority to make it happen.

The Trump Administration’s plan is called “Warp Speed,” which aims to stockpile and distribute to the states the vaccines that are ultimately approved for use by the FDA.  The stated aim of this effort is to deliver 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021.

According to statements from the Trump Administration, it says that it will work with states to distribute vaccines relying on pharmacies as the backbone of its efforts. 

Here in New York, according to the State Education Department which regulates pharmacies, there are over 5,300 licensed pharmacies in the state.  It is expected that they should have the capacity to handle the delicate vaccines.

While there are many pharmacies, the federal plan issued late last month by the CDC and the New York State plan issued in October recognize the limitations of relying solely on pharmacies and have identified additional routes to distribute the vaccines.

But the biggest challenge will be convincing the public that they should get the vaccine.  As in any other campaign, members of the public respond best when the public health message comes from a trusted source.  Americans are skeptical of statements from public officials and the Trump Administration’s tortured response to the pandemic and its reprehensible reactions to its re-election loss makes that situation worse.

In many ways, it will take a public outreach effort not unlike the one used to get people to comply with the census to educate New Yorkers about the vaccine.  Unless the vast majority of Americans are persuaded that the vaccine is safe and effective for them and their families, the pandemic fight will be needlessly prolonged, and more lives put at risk.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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