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COVID-19 vaccine looks effective after trials wrap up in Atlanta
Photo courtesy of Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By Beau Evans 

Capitol Beat News Service

Results of final-phase testing for a COVID-19 vaccine partly taking place in Atlanta show nearly 95% effectiveness at preventing the virus, marking a huge breakthrough in the push to end the global pandemic, Emory University researchers announced Monday.

The vaccine produced by the pharmaceutical company Moderna and given to more than 700 volunteers in Atlanta since August is the second candidate vaccine to clear major testing hurdles over the past week, after the company Pfizer announced last Monday its vaccine has shown 90% effectiveness.

Both vaccines have progressed through trial phases enough to be on the cusp of receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency-use authorization by year’s end.

“This is a great day for science and a great day for hope that we will see the end of the [COVID-19] pandemic,” said Dr. Colleen Kelley, an Emory infectious-diseases professor who helped lead the university’s Moderna vaccine trials.

With FDA approval, Kelley and other health experts estimate COVID-19 vaccines could be distributed as early as next month for hospital workers, first responders, elderly persons and those with chronic health issues. The general public would receive vaccines later next year, possibly by summer.

Around 30,000 people enrolled for trials of the Moderna vaccine candidate across the U.S., including more than 700 people at three sites in Atlanta led by Emory. Lasting from Aug. 11 to Oct. 23, the final trial phase was unusually fast due to the intense interest in developing multiple vaccines for COVID-19.

Trial volunteers only showed mild negative reactions to the vaccine, Kelley said. Many participants represented the most vulnerable persons to COVID-19 including people aged 65 and older, though the vaccine has not yet been tested on children.

A few steps are needed next before people can start receiving the Moderna vaccine, said Kelley. The vaccine’s data still needs to be peer-reviewed before FDA approval can be given, and state and federal officials still need to ensure the logistics are in place for millions of doses of the vaccines to ship out.

Both Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines use genetic sequencing to create proteins that mimic COVID-19 and trigger a response from the patient’s immune system to erect safeguards, rather than other types of vaccines that introduce disease-causing organisms to create resistance.

Notably, Moderna’s vaccine can be stored at far less extreme refrigeration temperatures than the Pfizer vaccine, which requires storage as low as minus-80 degrees Celsius. The Moderna vaccine can be stored for up to 30 days at between 2 degrees and 8 degrees Celsius, Kelley said.

Amid encouraging results, health experts say it will be important for more vaccines besides just those from Moderna and Pfizer to be developed and approved so that as many people as possible around the world can have access to preventative COVID-19 medicine.

“It could be that this year we cannot gather with our family and friends, but hopefully that would happen soon with the dramatic effects that the vaccines are showing just in the past week,” said Dr. Nadine Rouphael, an Emory infectious-disease professor and another trial leader for the Moderna vaccine.

“This is a very hopeful message,” she added.