Last month, less than eleven months after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the United States, the first vaccine was administered.
To create, develop, test, and administer a vaccine safely and effectively in under a year was an improbable feat. Leading companies Moderna and Pfizer (with their collaborator, BioNTech) saw breakthroughs in science and research, utilizing novel mRNA technology to develop remarkably safe and efficacious vaccines. That mRNA technology was key in being able to develop these vaccines rapidly, and will probably stay an important part of our armamentarium in the future should the need arise to develop vaccines against any variants.
These mRNA vaccines are different from traditional vaccines, but still completely safe. Conventional viral vaccines typically introduce weak and small amounts of virus into the body in order to teach the body to develop antibodies. Meanwhile, these new mRNA vaccines use small bits of mRNA to simply allow the body to manufacture the antigen needed to develop the antibodies without introducing any virus or viral material.
Furthermore, large batches of traditional vaccines are created from a significant amount of virus—SARS-CoV-2 in this case—an mRNA vaccine needs much less virus to develop the mRNA to be injected into the body.
While these benefits have allowed the vaccines to be developed at a historically fast pace, they were expected to present some problems — a major one being their requirement for storage at extremely cold temperatures.
According to Pfizer, they faced this challenge by developing a “cool box,” a container that can keep thousands of doses at temperatures below -70 degrees celsius for up to ten days. They also utilized large warehouses in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin to store the doses at these extremely low temperatures. The Moderna vaccine requirements are a little less stringent, and they store their vaccines at a warehouse in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, prior to shipping and distribution.
Now, the United States is in the midst of distribution and rollout. This is a challenging task that has not started smoothly.
According to The Washington Post, 20 million people were projected to get their first vaccine shot by the end of 2020, but only three million doses were actually administered. Some experts argue that these delays could have arisen from a lack of central planning of distribution, while others attribute the setback to the holiday season.
The CDC’s plan for distribution was to occur in phases, beginning with healthcare personnel, elderly residents and staff at nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and first responders. In the next two phases, citizens over 65 years of age were to be vaccinated, followed by essential workers—like our teachers—and health-impaired adults and children. Finally, the general population, including healthy adults, students, and teenagers would receive doses, and the plan would culminate with any remaining people, especially in remote locations.
However, since the vaccine rollout differs based on state, some of the prioritization orders have changed, and the timeline has been pushed back. While this may be worrisome, there is still reason for optimism, and there is every hope that a large proportion of the U.S. population will be vaccinated by the time the next academic year begins in September.
What does that mean for schooling in the area?
In Pennsylvania, each county is distributing vaccines separately, relying on the prioritization of populations set forth by the CDC. Currently we are still in the earliest phases of distribution: only the frontline workers, those at extremely high risk, and the elderly have been getting vaccines. Over the next 100 days, the new administration has set a target of administering 100 million vaccine doses. While this is an ambitious goal that will present many challenges, it may be possible with large-scale central planning. If the authorities are able to learn from previous errors in December, and citizens fulfill their responsibility by getting vaccinated, it is possible that we may be on the way toward herd immunity and some level of normalcy by the end of the summer.