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Pfizer's Groton Site Closely Involved In Vaccine Success

Harriet Jones

About 200 employees at Pfizer’s Connecticut lab helped work on the COVID-19 vaccine that the company said has proved 90 percent effective against the virus in a large-scale trial.

“There’s a great history of subject-matter expertise and scientific basis to draw upon when we go about this long path to discovering and developing vaccines,” said Groton site director John Burkhardt.

He said despite the accelerated nature of the development, there were no compromises. “No corners were cut. We followed this tried-and-true methodology that has worked so well for us in the past.”

He said one reason the vaccine could be developed so fast was the number of people interested in the clinical trial.

“We’ve enrolled over 43,000 patients,” he said. “There has been a great volunteerism that we’ve seen with Connecticut residents, across the U.S., into Latin America with people really being interested in volunteering to be in the trial.”

He said the biggest risk the company took was to begin manufacturing the drug in parallel, before efficacy or safety trials had been completed. But that’s one reason they hope to be able to distribute it as soon as the Food and Drug Administration signs off.

Each person will need two doses of the vaccine, and Pfizer hopes to have 100 million doses, which would treat 50 million people, released over the next few months starting in December.

Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, says this latest development in the race to produce a coronavirus vaccine makes him cautiously optimistic.

“So what we are looking at is the light at the end of the tunnel, not necessarily a bright sunny day on the other side of the tunnel,” said Omer.

If it’s proved out, he believes that the 90% effectiveness rate could have a huge impact on the course of the pandemic’s length and spread. But he’ll be looking for data on how long the vaccine protects patients and its impact on severely ill patients. And the federal government is looking for that too.

“FDA has made clear that they wouldn’t authorize any vaccine until at least half of the enrollees reach at least two months of follow-up after the second dose,” he explained, a date that is still a few weeks away.

Even with a vaccine approved, the end of coronavirus restrictions is still a long way off.

“We will be vaccinating as a country the population in various phases, and it will be a stepwise process,” Omer said.

At a Monday news conference, Gov. Ned Lamont echoed those thoughts. He’s concerned that news of an effective vaccine could lead people to let their guard down.

“We are trying to present the science as we see it,” Lamont said. “It’s good news it’s going to take many months to roll out. In the meantime the precautions we can take -- masks and distancing -- is going to make a world of a difference.”

Even as he issued the warning, he announced figures from the weekend that show 94 more people have been hospitalized with COVID-19, and the state’s seven-day rolling average infection rate has climbed to 3.8%.

Harriet Jones is Managing Editor for Connecticut Public Radio, overseeing the coverage of daily stories from our busy newsroom.
Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She loves hearing what you thought of her stories or story ideas you have so please email her at aoshinskie@ctpublic.org.

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