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Coronavirus pandemic: 'Every additional vaccine is a game changer'

Adriana Belmonte
·Senior Editor
·6 min read
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More and more COVID-19 vaccines are becoming available around the world.

In the U.S., Pfizer (PFE) and Moderna (MRNA) are the only two that have received emergency use authorization (EUA) from government regulators so far, but Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) also filed for it on Friday.

Other companies like Novavax (NVAX) and AstraZeneca (AZN) are also in the stages of seeking approval.

“Every additional vaccine is a game changer because we’re closer to getting enough people vaccinated,” Dr. Dara Kass, an emergency medicine physician at Columbia University, said on Yahoo Finance Live. “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has one dose. Its storage capacity is different. It provides amazing protection against getting sick and dying and actually has a great trajectory of protection.”

Lino Fernandes, an Environmental Services Aide, celebrates after Nurse Susan McCarthy (L) gave him the very first vaccine shot to  at Backus Hospital where 211 doses of the Pfizer BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine were delivered and being given to 30 hospital workers on the first day of vaccinations in Norwich, Connecticut on December 15, 2020. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)
Lino Fernandes, an environmental services aide, celebrates after a nurse gave him the very first vaccine shot at Backus Hospital in Norwich, Connecticut on December 15, 2020. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP)

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine varies in that it only requires one dose and can be stored in a normal freezer, compared to Pfizer (minus 70 degrees Celsius) and Moderna (minus 20 degrees Celsius). This makes it easier for the J&J shot to be administered in communities that might not have access to such cold storage units.

“Every step towards community outreach, towards accessibility, towards vaccine access matters,” Kass said. “That is a step in the right direction. We need to have as many partners on the ground in communities. We need to get to people where they are, which may mean community pharmacies. It may mean mobile vaccination units. It may mean large-scale vaccine centers in cities that can handle the storage capacity of the Pfizer vaccine versus the Moderna versus any others that come through.”

‘We’re moving in the right direction’

The Pfizer vaccine is reportedly 95% effective against the virus, while the Moderna vaccine’s efficacy is 94.1% and Johnson & Johnson’s is 66%.

Additionally, AstraZeneca’s is roughly 82%, and Novavax’s is 89.3%.

A medical worker prepares to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-through COVID-19 vaccination site at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds in Plant City, Florida, U.S. January 13, 2021.  REUTERS/Octavio Jones
A medical worker prepares to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-through vaccination site at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds in Plant City, Florida, January 13, 2021. REUTERS/Octavio Jones

Because of these disparities, some have wondered if they opt for a specific vaccine rather than just go for what is available. But according to Kass, it does not matter.

“I want to be very clear that every single one of the vaccines has been approved so far,” she said. “We only have two, but we expect to have a third and probably a fourth to provide amazing protection. Each on their own is incredible. Together, it’s unbelievable.”

Although J&J’s vaccine is 66% protective against moderate to severe infections, it’s 85% effective in protecting against severe disease and 100% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths.

“There’s no reason to choose between vaccines for the protection level,” Kass said. “You may choose to say ‘I can only get one vaccine. I won’t be able to come back to that second dose.’ Or maybe there is another reason from an operations perspective why you would choose one or the other if you have the choice.”

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But, she continued, “I don’t see a time any time soon where people are going to choose to seek out one or another vaccine. Because as far as I can tell, people are just lucky enough to get an appointment and get vaccinated at all.”

The U.S. reached a positive milestone earlier this week, with the number of vaccines administered surpassing the number of COVID-19 cases. The country is now on track to meet its goal of 100 million vaccines administered in 100 days.

More than 31 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the latest CDC data, which is 9.6% of the population.

“We’re moving in the right direction, increasing the delivery of the vaccine,” Kass said. “But we’re very, very far from our goal of enough Americans vaccinated to protect everybody else.”

9.6% of the U.S. population is vaccinated. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
9.6% of the U.S. population is vaccinated. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

‘Takes time to get the answers’

There are still many unknowns when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines that have been developed, including whether they prevent those inoculated from spreading the virus to others who are unvaccinated and whether they still offer enough protection against the new variant strains.

“The AstraZeneca studies out of England just showed there’s a decrease in transmissibility for people who are vaccinated,” Kass said. “But we haven’t proven that yet for the mRNA vaccines we have here. What I would say to people is likely that you won’t be able to transmit the virus, but we haven’t proven it.”

NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 21, 2021.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 21, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Because of that, public health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, are urging the public to continue wearing face masks and practice social distancing rather than risking exposing more people to the virus.

“Stay vigilant and wear a mask, but realize that even if you’re vaccinated, you’re going to have a milder course, if at all, in that very small fraction,” Kass said. “But most importantly, getting vaccinated protects you from transmitting that, from getting sick, or dying. And that’s the most important reason why people need to get themselves vaccinated as soon as they are given the opportunity.”

“It takes time to get the answers,” she added. “There are multiple strains out there that are not the original novel strain. And every time a virus replicates, it has a chance to mutate. We know that there are thousands of irrelevant mutations and then a couple that take hold.”

So far, there are three significant strains that have been identified across the globe — one in the U.K., one in Brazil, and one in South Africa, although more have popped up over the last several months.

Robyn Porteous, a vaccine trials' volunteer, is injected with a vaccine as part of the country's human clinical trial for potential vaccines after being tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the Wits RHI Shandukani Research Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 27, 2020. Picture taken  August 27, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Robyn Porteous, a vaccine trials' volunteer, is injected with a vaccine as part of the country's human clinical trial for potential vaccines, in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 27, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

All of the companies who have developed or still developing vaccines are examining whether their doses will protect efficiently against the new strains.

According to Kass, though, “even if there’s a change in the protection, it won’t be a light switch. It won’t be that these vaccines don’t work. It’s that they may not work as well. And that was the information coming out about the South Africa variant, that the vaccine was less effective, not not effective.”

The South African variant has proven to be the most resistant among the mutant strains — one study indicated that both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines were 6.5-8.6 times less effective against it, while Johnson & Johnson’s dropped to 57% and Novavax’s fell to 49%.

“What I would say is still get vaccinated if you have a chance,” Kass said. “We need to stop the spread of the virus, which will stop the mutations. And then we need to wait for the information to make sure that all of our vaccines cover all the variants we know are here.”

Adriana is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

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