Hopes are soaring that a Covid vaccine is within reach, following news that an interim analysis has shown Pfizer/BioNTech’s candidate was 90% effective in protecting people from transmission of the virus in global trials.
The vaccine performed much better than most experts had hoped for, according to the companies’ analysis, and brings into view a potential end to a pandemic that has killed more than a million people, battered economies and upended daily life worldwide.
The data is from an interim analysis and the trial continues into December but the headline results were emphatic. Regulators will be looking to process an emergency licence application at record speed.
Global stocks surged to record highs on the news, while companies that have become synonymous with lockdowns in the west, including Zoom’s video conferencing and food delivery firms, saw falls in their value.
John Bell, Regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, who is involved with the Oxford vaccine, said that the Pfizer team had shown “an amazing level of efficacy” and it could mean a return to normality by spring. “I’m the first guy to say that but I will say it with some confidence,” he told the BBC.
Manufacturing is already under way. Pfizer said they expect to supply globally up to 50m vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3bn doses in 2021. Countries will decide who they prioritise for vaccination. In the UK, the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation has recommended that – presuming the vaccines work well enough in elderly people – the first vaccines go to care home workers and residents, followed by anybody over 80 and other health and social care workers. After that, people are expected to get them in decreasing age order.
The news comes too late to help Donald Trump’s re-election campaign in the US, but the vice-president, Mike Pence, tried to claim their administration’s Operation Warp Speed programme had helped the vaccine’s development. Pfizer denied the suggestion.
“We were never part of the Warp Speed,” Kathrin Jansen, a senior vice-president and the head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer, said in an interview. “We have never taken any money from the US government, or from anyone.”
BioNTech, the small biotechnology company that is the originator of the vaccine, was founded by two married German scientists, Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, both born to Turkish immigrant parents, and the Austrian oncologist Christopher Huber. It originally set out to develop new types of immunotherapy for cancer, but has concentrated its capacities on the race for a Covid-19 vaccine.
There are so far no safety concerns around the vaccine, with the two companies reporting no serious side-effects. The high percentage of those protected makes it especially compelling. Regulators have previously said they would approve a vaccine that has just a 50% effectiveness rate – protecting half of those who get vaccinated.
“Today is a great day for science and humanity. The first set of results from our phase 3 Covid-19 vaccine trial provides the initial evidence of our vaccine’s ability to prevent Covid-19,” said Dr Albert Bourla, the Pfizer chairman and chief executive.
“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development programme at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen.”