November 13, 2020
Many plans, memos, letters and campaigns from colleges and universities about COVID-19 have often included six words: “until a vaccine becomes widely available.”
Although an available vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, appears closer on the horizon now than it did last spring, medical and public health experts say it may not be an easy fix for the problems facing colleges and universities. Additionally, whether colleges and universities will be able to inoculate their student bodies themselves is still unclear.
Last week, the drug company Pfizer released promising data about a vaccine candidate it had co-developed with German company BioNTech, revealing that preliminary results suggest the vaccine is 90 percent effective.
But what exactly the vaccine is effective against is going to matter a lot for the timeline of the pandemic, said Dr. Aileen Marty, a professor and infectious disease specialist at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.
Scientists usually care about whether a vaccine prevents symptoms of a virus, but because SARS-CoV-2 can be spread by people who show no symptoms, a vaccine’s effect on virus transmission specifically will be important.
Though available research on Pfizer’s vaccine candidate has shown that it is 90 percent effective at preventing symptoms of COVID-19, it is still unclear whether it interrupts transmission of the virus SARS-CoV-2, Marty said. In Pfizer’s preliminary study, only participants who showed symptoms were tested for the virus.
“If an individual gets the vaccine, it means that that person is going to have a stronger response and be more able to control getting symptoms from that virus, but it does not mean that the person cannot acquire the virus,” she said. “If this vaccine does nothing for transmission, then you have to make sure that virtually every human being gets the vaccine.”