Emily Lichty

COVID-19 vaccine distribution across the U.S. slower than expected, accelerated development causes hesitation 

Since COVID-19 was characterized as a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March, many people have found hope in the promise of a vaccine for the virus. Now, with 9.94 million doses administered in the U.S. as of Jan. 12,  according to the New York Times, that hope is becoming a reality. 

To get the vaccine developed, approved, manufactured and distributed as quickly as possible, Operation Warp Speed was founded on May 15, 2020 as a collaboration between multiple government organizations, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines have been approved for distribution in the U.S., while several other vaccines are still in development in the U.S., including the CureVac vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The goal of OWS was to produce and deliver 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by January 2021. 

“The development of the vaccine makes me very hopeful,” junior Grace Herburger said. “When teachers ask the few kids who are still learning virtually when they might return to school, many say ‘when there’s a vaccine.’ I hope that those people will be some of the first to seek vaccination so that we can all learn together on campus as soon as possible” 

Typically, for a vaccine to be approved, it must undergo a three-phase process on a group of humans, with the number of people tested increasing in each phase of the trial. After a Phase 3 trial, the vaccine can then seek approval from the FDA. While Phase 1 and 2 focus mostly on the dosage and safety of the vaccine, Phase 3, which tests thousands of people, focuses on the efficacy rate. Jim Anderson, a senior sales rep at Balfour Publishing, and the rep for ESD’s yearbook, is one of roughly 30,000 people who participated in the Phase 3 trial for Moderna, an American biotechnology company.

“Most of my friends were not willing to do it,” Anderson said. “[I thought] it might not work at all,  but I was pretty sure it would work because I [participated in] Phase 3. The only concern was whether it would have some side effects that would be highly undesirable…It just seemed like something that needed to be done, and I’ve been fortunate to have good health my whole life.” 

Anderson did experience side effects from the vaccine after receiving injections. According to CNBC, possible side effects that Moderna and Pfizer recipients could experience include fever, exhaustion, body aches and headaches. The Moderna and Pfizer trials were blind trials, meaning the participants of the trial did not know if they were receiving a placebo or the actual vaccine. 

“I ran a fever for 24 hours [that was] two degrees above normal,” Anderson said. “They warned us that when you get the second shot…your reaction would probably be more intense…Somebody who reacts a little bit the first time, [probably] reacts a lot more the second time. And the second time, [I had] a one degree fever but actually had much more body aches and general discomfort.” 

 Both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been approved for emergency use in the United States and continue to be monitored and developed. The distribution of these vaccines to certain groups, including adults 75 and older, essential workers and those with high-risk conditions, has begun. 

“The development of vaccines takes a very long time,” an epidemiologist who prefers to remain anonymous and works for one of the federal health agencies said. “What we are not going to know is the long term effects of this vaccine, and for how long the protection lasts…We haven’t followed the people [participating in the clinical trials] for a very long time. They will continue following them even after the vaccine is provided.”

 Moderna and Pfizer are the first licensed mRNA vaccines in the U.S. General surgeon and parent Alexandra Lovitt received the Pfizer vaccine as a member of its Phase 3 trial. While many vaccines use weakened germs to build immunity, mRNA vaccines teach cells in the body how to make proteins which help protect the body from infection. 

 “It’s actually very exciting to be part of new technology,” Lovitt said. “I’m honored to have been able to participate…  I [am] proud to have been a part of it.” 

To distribute the vaccine, the U.S. created several groups who are prioritized to receive the vaccine first. Here in Texas, group 1A includes health care personnel and those living in long term care facilities and group 1B includes people 65 years old and older and people 16 years of age and older with at least one chronic medical condition. The state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel is still considering which priority populations will be included in group 1C. The vaccine is being distributed to the recipient at no cost to them. 

Nurse Marcia Biggs received the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 29 and sees it as an extra “layer” of protection, instead of as a replacement for other precautions. 

“The vaccine doesn’t really change anything for me,” Biggs said. “I think of it more as another layer of protection. Think about how when you go out in the cold and you wish you had one more layer. I have that extra layer… It doesn’t replace any layers.” 

Some Americans are hesitant to take the vaccine, regardless of availability. In a national survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation on Dec. 15, 71 percent of adults would definitely or probably get a vaccine for COVID-19. According to a Jan. 13 poll of 178 students, 69 percent of students would be willing to take the vaccine.

“If you don’t reach 70-75 percent [of the population vaccinated], then the virus will continue,” the epidemiologist we interviewed said. “[The vaccines] will not stop the transmission…You need to have the two vaccines, one month apart….People are hesitant because they don’t know the long term effects in vaccine side effects of these vaccines. Nor [do] we know exactly what the long term immunity is by this vaccine.”

So far, the progress of vaccine distribution is behind the government’s initial schedule. On Jan. 4, OWS adviser Moncef Slaoui discussed an observed lag in vaccine distribution in the U.S., possibly resulting from the holiday season. 

The cause for such a lag is unknown, but Slaoui claims that the pace has picked up and over 500,000 people are currently receiving the vaccine per day. However, many are concerned that the undistributed vaccines will expire before they can be put to use.

According to AARP, an American non-profit organization that provides information to people 50-years old or older, as of Jan. 8, Texas had administered 527,533 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines developed by both manufactures, and 13,979 people had received both doses. They also published that less than 50 percent of the doses Texas had received by Jan. 8 from the federal government had been administered.

“Some of us are super eager for it to come out, and we are [wondering] where it is, and why it is not coming faster,” Biggs said. “You have to think about how it is produced. It takes time and you want it to be safe… you want it to be effective, and sometimes you have to wait a while. That’s what we are doing now.” 

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