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Despite Encouraging Pfizer News, Widespread Vaccination Is Months Away

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right, two significant numbers having to do with COVID-19 - 10 million - that's the number of confirmed cases in the U.S., and it's going up - and 90% - that's how effective Pfizer says its coronavirus vaccine is in preventing symptomatic cases of COVID-19. So does this mean we could have a vaccine soon? NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here with a reality check.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: The truth is that widespread vaccination is many months away. That may seem strange. Everything about this vaccine has been fast. So why can't we go from promising results to vaccines for all right away?

There are a few reasons. The first is that these results are preliminary. Pfizer will gather and present more data on efficacy and safety to the Food and Drug Administration. That's, best-case, a few weeks away. If all looks good, the FDA will authorize it for emergency use so Pfizer can work with the federal government's Operation Warp Speed to start distribution. That is no simple task for this vaccine, partly because it needs to be kept very cold.

Here's Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Most freezers that we think of as a freezer is a minus-20-degree Celsius freezer. This requires storage in minus-80-degree-or-below freezers. So those ultracold freezers are not in your neighborhood Walgreens.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Pfizer has created its own specialized storage containers with dry ice to make it a bit easier.

Here is the next challenge. Manufacturing has already begun for several vaccine candidates, including Pfizer's. But at first, there will still be limited doses, as Army General Gus Perna of Operation Warp Speed told NPR yesterday.

GUS PERNA: I think by the end of December, somewhere between tens of millions to 30 million doses will be available.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Each person needs two doses. So best-case, that's enough for only 4% of the population by the end of the year, although more doses will become available as the months go on. Those doses will get shipped out to public health workers and health care providers, who need to be ready to receive the supercold vaccine and get it quickly to the right people.

And that brings us to the last reason why this is going to take a while. This is not a first-come, first-served situation. The limited doses will be carefully doled out to different groups, like front-line health workers, seniors, those most at risk. So, says Rasmussen...

RASMUSSEN: It's not as though vaccine is available, and suddenly the clouds part and the sun comes out and everything is just wonderful. This is going to be a process that takes many months. And we're still going to have to be vigilant in the meantime about reducing community transmission.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That means there's no getting away from social distancing or hand-washing or wearing masks anytime soon.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "FACELESS ARTIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.