As coronavirus cases surge across the United States, public health officials are encouraged by preliminary data that shows experimental vaccines are effective at providing protection against the virus. Virginia Tech public health expert Lisa M. Lee offers insight on what this means for public health and what to expect in the months ahead for distribution.

When will we have a COVID-19 vaccine?  

“Two vaccine candidates with promising results, both showing 95% efficacy, are being considered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is encouraging news. If one or both of these meet the FDA’s criteria for approval or authorization for emergency use, the vaccines will need to be mass produced, packaged, stored, and distributed. These efforts will take time and specialized equipment, so it will be several months to a year before the vaccine is widely available.”

If there is not enough vaccine for everyone, how will the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention determine who gets it first?  

“Deciding who gets the vaccine first depends on both science and ethics. We have to consider both how the vaccine works and who we think should get it first. Should we prioritize health care providers because we need them to treat others? Or should people most likely to suffer severe complications or die get it first because we should save the most lives? What about teachers, bus drivers, and other front-line workers who are highly likely to be exposed as part of their job?  

“Many ethicists have been deliberating about who should be first and why. The National Academy of Medicine issued a consensus report, Framework for Equitable Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccine, recommending that the first available vaccines be allocated for high risk health workers, first responders, people with underlying conditions that put them at significant risk, and older adults who live in congregate settings.”  

Once I have the vaccine, can I stop worrying about physical distancing and wearing a mask?  

“In short, no. What we know about these two promising vaccines is that they reduce the chance of getting sick from the infection—we do not yet know whether they prevent infection with the virus or just reduces illness from infection.”  

“While the vaccine will be excellent at protecting individuals from getting symptoms and illness, we do not yet know if it will help prevent the spread of the infection to others. Until we know that, we must continue to keep our distance, avoid indoor gatherings, and wear masks to prevent spreading the infection to someone who could get very ill or die.”

About Lee

Lisa M. Lee is a public health expert specializing in infectious disease epidemiology and public health ethics. She also serves as the associate vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech, where she leads the division of Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance. Lee has worked in public health and ethics at the local, state, and federal levels, including 14 years at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the Obama administration, she served as executive director of the Presidential Bioethics Commission. More here.

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