Franciscan Health doctor: Vaccines could ‘alter trajectory of pandemic’ by spring or summer

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine is bringing us one step closer to ending the pandemic, health experts say.

The results of the company’s latest clinical trial show the vaccine candidate is 94.5% effective.

News 8 spoke with Dr. Christopher Doehring at Franciscan Health. Despite the surge in cases, he is confident we are rounding the COVID-19 corner.

Gillis: Ninety-five-and-a-half percent is very high. We shoot for maybe 50 to 60% effectiveness with the flu vaccine. Is this number really possible or might it be a little bit too good to be true?

Doehring: Well, certainly the flu vaccine has a lot of variables that make it hard to really hit high numbers. One particular variable is we don’t know from year to year which flu strain is going to emerge. Right now both the (Moderna and Pfizer) vaccines are targeting the same virus and they are targeting the same protein on that virus — the so-called spike protein. 

Even if the virus remains relatively stable and even with minor variations with its genetic makeup, it appears the vaccine will be effective in limiting not only infections, but hopefully even for people who do get it. So, those five who got the coronavirus even after taking the vaccine, there were no hospitalizations and certainly no deaths. That’s one of the other benefits of vaccines … not only preventing you from getting it, but if you do get it, the vaccine hopefully gives you a sense of protection of the illness otherwise that might have been. 

Gillis: The trial is ongoing. We’re seeing 30,000 participants in this trial. We always look to have tens of thousands of participants to make this a solid sample size. And the medical community gets excited. But I was speaking to another doctor and she was saying we really need to look at … or enlist 100,000 participants before we can be certain that this is going to apply to the masses. Your thoughts on the 30,000?

Doehring: I mean more is certainly always better, but you run into some practical limitations. And part of the reason more is better is because some of the things you are looking for — like certain complications — may only happen in one out of every 10,000 people who get it. So, statistically speaking, you may not see something when you’re sampling 15,000 versus when you’re sampling 100,000 or even a million. 

That’s why under the emergency use authorization it will continue to be very closely monitored. And I suspect for the next couple of years we will be watching very closely all of the adverse events that potentially could be related to the vaccine. But again, right now under the circumstances, it seems to be both safe and effective and that is a great combination and great news for the United States and for the rest of the world as additional vaccines are developed. 

Gillis: And in terms of individuals out there who are watching this and seeing this unfold … it’s difficult to get our hopes up these days because there has been so much going on. What would you say to those people? Should we remain healthy skeptics?

Doehring: The truth of the matter is we will have a vaccine fairly soon. Hopefully in the next two weeks, but we will not have sufficient supply to really alter the trajectory of the pandemic probably until next spring or maybe early summer at which point we really should have the tools on the prevention side to protect the broader population, particularly the most vulnerable among us and to me that is a game changer in this fight.

We’re going to move the needle in the first couple of months as we target healthcare workers. But once we can get this out there and start vaccinating literally tens of millions if not 100 million or more Americans, we should be able to alter the trajectory of this entire pandemic in the United States.

Gillis: Your final thoughts?

Doehring: I think that whether it’s the two vaccines that we kind of seem to be on the doorstep of or the recent Eli Lilly drug that got approved which I think will also have a role to play here … plus all of the other things that are helping us to treat COVID-19 patients better in the hospital … I think we are on the cusp of turning the tide here. We will need to continue masking, the social distancing and all of those things that protect ourselves and others. But it’s starting to feel — even in the midst of the current surge and outbreak — we’re starting to get more tools in our toolbox that are really going to help us prevail here.

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over five years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Instagram @reportergillis and Facebook @DrMaryGillis.


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