RI health experts cautiously optimistic about Pfizer vaccine news

No major safety issues have been found, Pfizer asserted. “This is potentially groundbreaking news that in the medium to long term could have …

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island health experts reacted with varying degrees of optimism to Monday’s announcement that a COVID-19 vaccine in development by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech SE, has proved more than 90% effective in a clinical trial.

No major safety issues have been found, Pfizer asserted.

“This is potentially groundbreaking news that in the medium to long term could have profound implications for our ability to control the pandemic,” Brown University epidemiologist Mark Lurie told The Journal. “A vaccine that is 90% effective, if this turns out to be the case, would be a major advance and beyond the expectations of most public health experts. So I am cautiously optimistic.”

Mark Lurie.

Lurie ascribed what he called “the need for caution at this point” to several factors.

“First, what has been reported are very preliminary, sparse results, results that could potentially change as the trial progresses,” he said. “In addition, we don’t yet know anything about the long-term safety and efficacy of this vaccine. Although it has been reported that there have been no serious safety concerns, we really need to see the long-term safety and efficacy of the vaccine, which will only be available as time progresses and more data is collected.”

Dr. John A. Stoukides, vice chairman of the Department of Medicine and chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Roger Williams Medical Center, applauded the Pfizer announcement, which came in a media release at 6:45 a.m. Monday.

“This is great news,” Stoukides wrote in an email, “what we have all been waiting for: a safe and effective vaccine. This is the only way we will ever get life back to normal and put COVID behind us.”

The Roger Williams specialist noted the increased rates of infection experienced in Rhode Island and many other states.

“What we are seeing now is accelerated community spread because people need to get out and work, visit loved ones and carry out their necessary activities,” he said.

He added: “The virus is out there and the vast majority of us are not immune so it’s only a matter of time until we either get vaccinated or infected. Personally, I’d take the vaccine over infection any day.”

Lurie said a vaccine is no cure-all for coronavirus disease.

“Let’s be clear: today’s announcement, potentially exciting though it is, is just one of many steps that will need to be taken if we are to successfully address COVID. The process of applying for approval and ensuring adequate production and ethical distribution are not insignificant and will take time, especially in the U.S., where inept leadership and a disdain for science has fanned the flames of vaccine skepticism.

“While encouraging, this vaccine will not likely be the epidemic’s panacea. In the short to medium term the vaccine is largely irrelevant. It will not get us out of the dire situation we are currently facing in the U.S., with alarming increases in new cases and a wave of hospitalizations and deaths that are just starting to grow.”

Dr. Megan Ranney, Brown University professor and an emergency physician at Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals, put herself in the upbeat-yet-cautious camp.

“This is one of the first times I’ve felt hopeful about COVID-19 in awhile,” she told The Journal. “If this early data holds in future analyses, it could be the game-changer we are looking for. That said, until I see the data – and until we know how long immunity lasts, whether it works equally well in older adults, and whether there are unidentified side effects – I will remain ‘cautiously optimistic.’ ”

Brown Emergency Medicine

Ray Sullivan, spokesman for United Nurses and Allied Professionals Locals 5098 and 5110, said the union also is guardedly optimistic.

“The testing and clinical efficacy data surrounding the Pfizer vaccine and others currently in development should be thoroughly scrutinized before any drug is widely dispensed,” Sullivan wrote in an email to The Journal.

“That said, we are cautiously hopeful that this development could adequately safeguard frontline health workers, their patients and families. We’ve seen a dramatic rise in positive tests among hospital workers over the last month and with colder weather soon to be driving more people inside, the need to find an effective treatment could not be more urgent.”

Kerry L. LaPlante, professor and chair of pharmacy practice at the University of Rhode Island, told The Journal that “when it comes to this vaccine, as with any new drug or vaccines, the conversations should be divided and discussed into two separate buckets: safety and efficacy.”

Regarding safety, she pointed to the Pfizer website, noting “there have been no serious events from this vaccine, and safety is reviewed from an independent data monitoring committee… this committee advised Pfizer to continue to collect ongoing data from study participants worldwide.”

Evidence of efficacy, she said, is found in the more than 90% success that Pfizer cited.

LaPlante is a member of the Rhode Island Vaccine Advisory Committee, an external group comprised of some 20 outside experts from Brown University, Lifespan, Care New England, community health centers and the United Way, among others.

She referenced minutes of a recent meeting of the committee, which places healthcare workers and first responders at the top of the list of Rhode Islanders who will be eligible first for a vaccine.

Vaccine prioritization