Pfizer has announced that its experimental covid-19 vaccine is more than 90 percent effective. “It’s promising news, but it’s not definitive yet,” says virginologist Ruth Tachezy. “The epidemic is not just about people dying, but about the total breakdown of the infrastructure of the whole society. After all, people see it today,” he adds. She said vaccination is key and the new vaccine is safe.
Is Pfizer’s announcement that they have a vaccine with more than 90 percent effectiveness a miracle done, or has it not been won yet?
This is certainly promising news, but since this is the number they published after the inter-analysis, when they basically evaluated only a part of the vaccinated, it is still far from definitive. It is very promising, but it is not yet concluded that this is how the vaccine will work. However, we do not need 100% efficacy for all infectious diseases, and a vaccine with less efficacy can have a huge benefit (The US company Moderna said on Monday that its vaccine against covid-19 is even 94.5 percent effective. This follows from the ongoing results of the third phase of clinical trials, ed. note).
Is it known when the vaccine will be final?
At the end of the test. Estimates are that Pfizer could apply for some kind of prior permission during November so that they can begin preparing the entire process for mass production. A limited quantity could therefore be available by the end of this year.
She graduated from the Faculty of Science of Charles University in Prague, majoring in molecular biology and genetics. She leads a research group in the newly built Biotechnology and Biomedical Center of the Academy of Sciences and Charles University (Biocev). After a year’s stay at the Department of Parasitology, Charles University in Prague, she worked at the Department of Serums and Vaccines at the Department of Experimental Virology. Since 1998 she has been the head of the National Reference Laboratory for Papillomaviruses and since 2012 and 2015 she has headed the laboratories of Molecular Epidemiology of Viruses, ÚHKT, Prague.
The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at minus 80 degrees. How can this be managed logistically in the Czech Republic?
It is a problem, but I have already mentioned the mention that work is being done to eliminate this problem. It is possible that he will invent some storage medium that will circumvent the need to store at such deep temperatures. Otherwise, I think it is really a logistical problem in terms of transport and distribution. However, I believe that this will now be one of the main things they will focus on.
What happens if 60 percent of citizens are not vaccinated against covid-19, according to some experts? What is the scenario for, say, half of the required vaccinations?
So far, these are only estimates that 60 percent would be enough. Those estimates range between 60 and 40 percent. I don’t think we can really know yet. Of course, the fewer people get vaccinated, the slower we will develop collective immunity. This means that there will still be a larger group of people who can become infected, and there will still be people in that group who may have a severe course of the disease. It will no longer be 100 percent of the population as at the beginning of the epidemic, but it will depend on how many people are vaccinated.
What is the difference between the AstraZeneca vaccine that the Czech Republic has already ordered and the genetic vaccine from Pfizer?
Pfizer’s vaccine is one of the so-called genetic vaccines. Genetic information in the form of mRNA is inserted into the body, which is a kind of template, according to which a protein is formed in the cell, against which the body then produces the necessary antibodies, and at the same time the cellular response is stimulated. The AstraZeneca vaccine is based on a non-propagating viral vector (A vector is a molecular transporter used to transfer foreign genetic information to a target organism, ed. note.), which also carries information for the SARS-CoV-2 protein.
With the mRNA method used by Pfizer, the non-propagating virus (vector) is not introduced into the body, but only its protein. Can it be said that this method is safer?
It’s a little more complicated. The adenoviral vector itself is highly immunogenic (elicits an immune response). Thus, if we use it to provide information for the SARS-CoV-2 protein, it is possible that the body will start to produce antibodies against the vector instead of the desired SARS-CoV-2 protein. However, it is also possible that, due to the high immunogenicity of the vector, more antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 protein will be produced. That is why it is necessary to conduct clinical trials to find out how the body responds.
Therefore, I would not be afraid of the risk of a bad reaction from the organism in the sense that the vaccinated person would be affected or endangered in some way. It is rather the risk of a less effective reaction, which may not be confirmed.
Why has mRNA vaccine technology, which has been known since the 1990s, entered the real use and clinical testing phase today?
I can’t answer that. The vaccines are known, but I’m not aware if they were being prepared for diseases that were relevant before. Certainly RNA has also been prepared for the zika and Ebola epidemics, but there is always the problem that the epidemic must last for some time and it must be profitable for the company. So it is possible that they did not start the development, because it had no perspective for them. I’m not sure, it’s my hypothesis. I know that with some vaccines, they started developing a vaccine, but those diseases disappeared before the vaccine could get to the next stages.
People often have an aversion to a new vaccine because of the speed with which it is introduced. She is afraid she is “hurried with a hot needle”. Is that really so, or are long-known methods such as mRNA just being finished and upgraded?
As I said, they have been working on that RNA for a long time, just because they have never put it into practice for the above reasons. The principle is already known for the latter, and thanks to advancing knowledge, for example in molecular biology and in many other fields, knowledge is improving. This speed was also made possible this time by international cooperation and the availability of information. This has never happened before. In the past, you often kept it under wraps in the laboratory so that no one would steal it from you.
So speed does not apply at the expense of quality?
Certainly not. I really think that these vaccines are well guarded and the speed here is certainly not at the expense of quality. Everything is accelerated, especially administratively. For example: the test is scheduled for six months, there is an end point, when you reach it – for example, a certain number of individuals with the disease – you do the first interanalysis. Here it is accelerated so that as soon as the result is achieved, the commission immediately sits down and processes everything. There are no delays, it’s huge. At the same time, information is provided not only on safety, but also on the production process. A lot of things that used to happen gradually now run in parallel, and everyone is completely focused on that. This does not mean that something is cheating.
Could today’s pressure on speed open the door in further research? If this vaccine were successful, would it start the development of vaccines for other diseases as well?
I think for sure. Testing is always costly and profitability will always play a role. On the other hand, I think that this situation has opened up other possibilities. International global cooperation and plans have been opened on how to finance the development of these vaccines or drugs in similar situations. It is possible that in the future it will not be as dependent on finances as before. There may be other mechanisms to address these situations.
Do you have experience in your practice of what convinced a person who was a sworn opponent to be vaccinated?
I can give one specific example where he was not a sworn opponent, but a man who was not only informed. He did not vaccinate against tick-borne encephalitis, underwent cancer and chemotherapy, so he was immunocompromised. While walking in the woods, he caught a tick, got encephalitis and died there. These are such terrible examples, but when you hear them, you should definitely tell your surroundings what they are about and what the consequences of non-vaccination may be. Unfortunately, there are experts who do not want to get vaccinated, and I think it is very wrong. Those personal examples can be positive for people in this sense.
How do you think the skepticism about vaccination is highest today than ever – how should the side effects of the vaccine be communicated to the public?
It is now important that the information campaign is very targeted and very understandable for all. This means that people need to understand that every vaccination elicits some reactions, but they are completely insignificant, that it is common and that it is important to monitor the serious neurological consequences. However, vaccinologists could comment in detail on this, and they should do so now.
Now is a good time for experts to start explaining certain concepts, because this pandemic has brought an infodemie (flooded with a large amount of true and false information) and really flooded with information. The way we talk about vaccines and testing today has never been so great.
What is important for a layman to know about the new coronavirus vaccine?
He should know that it is safe and that it has some effect. Furthermore, it will certainly not be 100% effective, that there will probably be some people who become infected even after inoculation. However, it is very likely that it will at least prevent some hard clinical course. A person gets infected, but the disease does not start. This is also the case with other vaccines. This reduces the severity of the course or the likelihood of clinical symptoms at all.
What is the fundamental connection between vaccination and a pandemic?
Certainly the fact that it is not only important for that person individually, but that today it is very important for the population. Because when we don’t regain our immunity, we’ll still be fighting the covid. People need to realize that this is not just their personal benefit, but a population benefit. I always tell students, remember that if you vaccinate this, the peak of the onset of the epidemic will decrease. It’s not just about people dying, but about the total breakdown of the infrastructure of society as a whole. After all, people already see it today. What I taught students for years as a theory, he now sees in practice. When hospitals start to collapse and paramedics become infected, there will be no one to treat whom. But in a moment, when there are even more of those sick, there will be no one to bake bread, drive the tram and so on.
What do people most often misinterpret in the amount of information that accompanies vaccine development? For example, suspension of testing has been much discussed.
Information to which lay people have never had access. However, this information is quite common for experts. For example, with the suspension of testing, one must realize that clinical trials are conducted on tens of thousands of individuals. Everyone can imagine that there will be someone among them who may have a heart attack or stroke, who is suddenly diagnosed with cancer, but also someone who will have a car accident or fall on a bicycle.
For the last two things, it is clear that vaccination is not to blame, so the tests are not even suspended. But if it’s something you can’t say unequivocally, it has to be checked, so pause the test. Then, if it is proven that it was not related to vaccination, it can be continued. It’s a matter of a few days. This is precisely the case with several of these vaccines.