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Story Publication logo November 18, 2020

'Incredible Milestone for Science.' Pfizer and BioNTech Update Their Promising COVID-19 Vaccine Result

Volunteers from Indonesia's Red Cross prepare to spray disinfectant at a school closed amid the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Jakarta. Image by REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan. Indonesia, 2020.

Veteran public health journalists from Science magazine explore what science knows—and is learning...

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The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine candidate has 95% efficacy according to the latest analysis offered by the companies. Image by Jon Rehg / Shutterstock. United States, 2020.
The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine candidate has 95% efficacy, according to the latest analysis offered by the companies. Image by Jon Rehg/Shutterstock. United States, 2020.

Science's COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Not to be outdone by a rival with a similar product, Pfizer and BioNTech today provided an update on the previously announced success of their COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. pharma giant and its German biotech partner now report 95% efficacy for their vaccine candidate, drawing on the final analysis of a 43,000-person study. And don't worry about the elderly not responding to the vaccine; the efficacy only drops to 94% in people over 65 years of age, the companies said in a press release.

As opposed to the vague initial report last week that their vaccine had greater than 90% efficacy, Pfizer and BioNTech are providing more specific data now that the study has reached enough COVID-19 cases to end. In all, the trial had 162 confirmed cases of symptomatic COVID-19 in the placebo group versus eight among those who received the two scheduled doses of the vaccine. The efficacy, which was measured 7 days after the second dose of the vaccine, was the same in different races and ethnicities, the companies say—although subgroup analyses always have more uncertainty. Nine of the 10 people who had severe cases of COVID-19 during the trial received the placebo, which indicates that even if the vaccine fails to prevent symptomatic disease it still offers powerful protection from serious harm. No serious side effects surfaced, the companies report, although 3.8% of the vaccinated reported fatigue after the injections.

The results are nearly identical to preliminary findings reported by Moderna on 16 November from its ongoing efficacy trial. Both its vaccine and the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate contain messenger RNA (mRNA) that codes for the surface protein of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The strategy is novel—no medicines made from mRNA have been approved for widespread human use so far.

The Pfizer/BioNTech collaboration says it will submit "within days" a request to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization (EUA) of its vaccine. If recent history repeats itself, Moderna will follow suit about 1 week later. FDA has said it will convene its independent vaccine advisory committee to review any COVID-19 EUA requests, and the first meeting could occur as early as 9 December, an agency official tells ScienceInsider.

"This is a remarkable and very reassuring situation that we find ourselves in," says Trudie Lang, who directs the Global Health Network at Oxford University. "To go from identifying a new virus to having several vaccines at the point of applying for regulatory approval is an incredible milestone for science."

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