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Bringing a task force back into play where science leads the narrative is critically important: Dean of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health

Michelle Williams, Harvard School of Public Health joins the Yahoo Finance panel to discuss the latest Pfizer, BioNTech vaccine news as infections surge across the United States.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's bring in Sel Hardy. She is a CFRA Analyst of Equity and Fund Research, and Sel, it's good to talk to you on this day. Just give me a sense of how you think investors should be reading the very latest developments coming out of Pfizer and BioNTech.

OK, let's see if we can reestablish that shot with Sel in just a bit. But we want to get out to Michelle Williams. She is a Harvard School of Public Health Dean there. And Michelle, I guess the same question to you, just from the medical side here, specifically, how should we be looking at this development? Yes, a 90% efficacy rate, certainly high, even if you consider the vaccines on the market right now. But we're still looking at a very small sample size for these late stage trials.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: That's right. We're looking at a very good day, first and foremost, that today's announcement from Pfizer is really welcome news, but we also have to have a bit of-- we have to be circumspect about what we've heard today, because it is very early. It is one of the trials with only a small sample size. You know, their target was 164 cases before they complete the experiment, and they're reporting data midstream on 94 cases.

But the news is very good, it's very optimistic. And I think everyone heard the president-elect make a very clear and powerful statement. And that while we should be optimistic, we should also practice discipline. It will take time. Even as we wait for the other companies to bring forward vaccines, we have to continue to practice the very basic public health interventions of mask wearing, social distancing, and all of the public health things that we know are necessary for keeping the transmission rates down.

One last thing I'll say, and it's really very important, is bringing a task force back into play where science leads the narrative is critically important for building trust and confidence in this vaccine that we're all talking about today and future candidates coming forward. It's a good day, but we all need to continue to practice our discipline. And you see the markets' responding. The markets' responding, because this is the first good public health news that we've had in a long time. Science leading the way, leadership giving a clear coherent and collaborative message across red and blue states, and you know, an opportunity to think about a hopeful bright future.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I mean, there's no way to sugarcoat the news here. I mean, it's hard to really overstate the importance of 90% efficacy being reported from Pfizer and BioNTech, because we think about the threshold there, 50%, 60% in terms of the FDA's guidelines, as well as what we see from flu vaccines, generally 60% in a good year.

But the big question for me is kind of rolling this out and kind of limitations in terms of production, because Pfizer says they'll be able to get out 1.35 billion doses by the end of 2021. But when you back up and look at the global need, it's going to be nine billion doses. Keep in mind also, these are two shots that we're going to have to get out to the public as well here. So talk to me about the distribution constraints and the struggles around that and how difficult it's going to be to actually roll something like this out.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: It's going to be a challenge, but we can do this. We can do this if we partner. This is where the distribution challenges could be met by strategically enabling and leveraging the assets we have in operational capacity in the business sector, and I think keeping our collaborative avenues open will really help. So the cold chain is going to be a very big challenge. I mean, we're talking about an mRNA-based vaccine that requires a cold chain of minus 80 degrees Celsius. We can do this, but we'll have to engage with our corporate partners who have the capacity to build up to scale.

The other thing that you mentioned, Zack, is it's going to require two vaccines, right? And so we'll have to communicate effectively, carefully and thoughtfully to the community, to our citizenry about how important it's going to be to overcome the vaccine hesitancy issue. And then when we start to roll this out, two vaccines, two shots over 21 days, and it's 28 days before you actually reach, you know, the level of immunity, in theory, based on the data that we have available to us from Pfizer right now.

So we have to think about partnership to deal with the distribution challenges. Cold chains not going to be an easy one to tackle, but we can do it if we work well. And then we have to work on the behavioral side of this by messaging how important it is to continue to listen to the scientists, trust the data that's coming out, have clear transparency about the sustained efficacy, because we still have more to go.

We have to learn how long immunity will last, and we have to communicate vividly and carefully to the population that we would want to vaccinate and have participate in the vaccination program. Two shots means that the 50 million doses that we may have by the end of this year only translates to 25 million people, and we have to really continue to invest in the public health interventions that will take us through 2021 and beyond until we can get enough people vaccinated.

AKIKO FUJITA: And Michelle, what does today's news mean for some of these other drug makers that are developing their own coronavirus vaccine, particularly, a name like Moderna and the technology they're using?

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Yeah, well, I think this could be good news for Moderna and AstraZeneca, because I believe, if memory serves, they're using that same mRNA platform. So I think this is good news for those other companies and good news for the world, because if we can have three of the top six frontrunners on vaccines using a similar platform come out and have similar positive early results, it's good news for all.