Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine shows promise, but don’t expect it in pharmacy anytime soon

The promise of an effective, safe COVID-19 vaccine brings hope, but the reality is it likely won’t be at your pharmacy or doctor’s office anytime soon. 

The medical community was buoyed by Pfizer’s announcement Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective in trial. 

“I think it’s exciting that there’s a vaccine,” said Dr. Anna Wald, University of Washington professor of medicine and head of the infectious diseases division. “But the timeline, I don’t think it’s yet that clear and I don’t think it’s going to be that short.”

Her enthusiasm is over the success of a vaccine against the novel coronavirus faces realism on the side of regulation and approval.

“I think people need to realize that there's a big difference between proving the concept that you can make a vaccine that's really effective, but the work is not done yet,” Wald said. 

Before a vaccine can get to the public, it has to get emergency federal approval. Washington state and a group of other West Coast states have agreed to an additional step of independently testing its safety and effectiveness after that. Then comes the complex question of distribution to billions of people.

“I think just the effort of getting everybody in front of somebody who has a syringe with the vaccine in their hand is enormous,” Wald said.

“I equate it to something like a wartime effort,” said King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, comparing vaccine distribution to when Boeing mass-produced airplanes for World War II. “King County needs to get together right now with the state and federal partners, as well as one of the best private health care systems in the world here, and get this out as quickly as it becomes available.”

On Monday Dunn proposed a budget amendment that would set aside an additional $5 million in federal CARES Act funding for vaccine distribution. The council is set to consider it this week.

“If we're a month or two late because we didn't get our act together, people are going to die,” Dunn said. “So this is a serious issue. And we need to get on it right away.”

When ready, a vaccine will be free but not first come, first serve. The state said it will first serve high-risk health care workers and first responders, followed by people with highly compromising health conditions. 

Wald guessed it could be spring before a vaccine is ready for the general public. Pfizer is not the only company working its way toward federal approval. AstraZeneca is entering Phase 3 human trial and Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is hosting the trial and looking for volunteers. 

“We’re excited about it, we started on Thursday and we hope to enroll 500 people very quickly,” said Dr. Julie McElrath of Fred Hutch’s vaccine and infectious diseases division. 

Volunteers accepted into the trial will either get two doses of the vaccine or the placebo. People interested can visit for more information.