Over the course of the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused unimaginable human suffering, with more than 90 million documented worldwide infections leading to almost 1.95 million deaths. Within South Carolina alone, over 5,300 deaths have been attributed to COVID infections.
Amidst this grim reality, hope appeared in December as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the first COVID vaccines for emergency use. Data from clinical trials demonstrated that vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna both had about a 95% success rate in preventing symptomatic infection. Equally important, both vaccines had excellent safety profiles, with very few serious side effects noted.
South Carolina began vaccinating first responders, frontline health care workers and nursing home residents on Dec. 14. Following an initially slow start to vaccine administration, state leaders have worked with health care systems to speed up vaccine administration.
By Monday, more than 82,000 first doses of vaccine had been administered in our state, with almost 95,000 additional vaccination appointments scheduled. Most health systems are reporting that a surprisingly large number of those eligible for vaccination are refusing to receive the vaccine, or are at least planning to delay vaccination, out of fear that there is not enough data to ensure that the vaccines are safe.
It is true that the COVID vaccines were developed in record time. However, the science behind these mRNA vaccines has existed since 2009 and is quite solid. U.S. FDA is the gold standard worldwide for approving vaccines for the good of public health. As health professionals and scientists familiar with the process behind the development process, we are convinced that the scientific methods used were rigorous and that no shortcuts occurred.
By mid-to-late summer, both Pfizer and Moderna had shown that the vaccines created the desired immune responses in animals, and small-scale human clinical trials revealed promising results in volunteers. With these positive results, both companies began expanded clinical trials, enrolling more than 70,000 individuals. These trials demonstrated such a high degree of effectiveness and safety for both vaccines that the FDA granted emergency authorization for use.
How was the development of these vaccines completed in an unprecedented amount of time?
It was not the result of sloppy science. Foundational science developed over a decade ago, expert trial design, the willingness of global scientists to share information, the courage of the 70,000 people who participated in the vaccine clinical trials, the unprecedented funding and expertise provided by government experts and agencies, and the ability for FDA to utilize its team of scientists and physicians to promptly review the data and confirm these vaccines are safe and effective all combined to make the vaccines available in record time.
To date, approximately 6.7 million individuals in the U.S. have received COVID vaccines. Thankfully, serious side effects have been extremely rare, with the most common side effects noted being injection site soreness or a few hours of mild flu-like symptoms such as achy muscles. We can now predict that the performance of these vaccines will be equal to or better than many other vaccines upon which we all depend on for health.
Millions of Americans are anxiously awaiting their place in line to receive a COVID vaccination. At the same time, many people are expressing a “wait-and-see” attitude, desiring to see more results before agreeing to be vaccinated. Herd immunity, which occurs when a high percentage of a population develops immunity to infection, is most safely achieved through vaccination.
Over the next few months, unless enough citizens receive vaccination to achieve this widespread immunity, the pandemic, along with the associated inconveniences, suffering and deaths, will persist.
We believe the arrival of effective, safe vaccines is the miracle for which most of us have been waiting. For the first time in history, humankind has developed the ability to stop a global pandemic in its tracks through outsmarting the virus within a year of its discovery!
If we all do our part to ensure we break the cycle of the COVID pandemic, 2021 can be the beginning of safer and healthier future for all of us. The sooner we can get back to a more normal situation in this country, the better it will be for everyone.
Les Hall, MD, is the dean of the UofSC School of Medicine Columbia. The other three deans of the state’s medical colleges – Matthew Cannon, Ray DuBois and Marjorie Jenkins – contributed to this column. Cannon, DO, is the dean of the Carolinas Campus of Via College of Osteopathic Medicine. DuBois, MD, PhD, is the dean of the MUSC College of Medicine. Jenkins, MD, MEdHP, is the dean, UofSC School of Medicine Greenville.