Pfizer says it has 90% effective COVID-19 vaccine, Cuomo reiterates distribution concerns

Stephen Thomas, SUNY Upstate Medical

— From Upstate Medical University
Stephen Thomas, SUNY Upstate Medical’s chief of Infectious Disease, has been appointed the lead principal investigator for the world-wide Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial. 

ALBANY COUNTY — The bombshell announcement from Pfizer that it has developed a 90-percent effective vaccine for COVID-19 — pending final test results — brought renewed criticism from Governor Andrew Cuomo on the Trump administration’s distribution plan.

It also brought praise for the role SUNY Upstate Medical has in the project.

Albany County officials said on Tuesday they are “ready to roll” in administering vaccinations although questions around supply remain.

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, told CNN that an average American could potentially have access to a coronavirus vaccine by April of 2021.

“Pfizer’s saying their drug is 90 percent efficacy and 90 percent would be fantastic,” said Cuomo in a conference call with reporters on Monday.

Many vaccines, like the flu vaccine, are only about 50 percent effective, although it’s unclear what the level of protection of the ultimate vaccine will be until the third and final phase of testing it on people is completed.

 “The federal government says that they want to start to ship within a matter of days, the Pfizer vaccine, so that, when it’s fully proven, states will be in a position to distribute it. That’s great,” Cuomo went on.

But Cuomo also said, referring to the distribution plan, “Going to just private market participants, hospitals, clinics, drug stores compounds the injustice that has been done because that infrastructure doesn’t exist in poorer communities and Black and brown communities and we already have a higher infection rate.”

Pfizer, one of several companies working on a COVID-19 vaccine, has developed it in partnership with BioNTech in Germany and plans to apply this month for emergency-use approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration. Moderna Inc., another company in the United States, also hopes to file an application with the FDA this month.

Also on Monday, Cuomo announced that Stephen Thomas, SUNY Upstate Medical’s chief of Infectious Disease, was appointed the lead principal investigator for the world-wide Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial. The SUNY medical school serves as one of the global third-phase vaccine trial locations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, clinical development of a new vaccine is a three-phase process. During Phase I, small groups of people receive the trial vaccine. In Phase II, the clinical study is expanded and the vaccine is given to people who have characteristics (such as age and physical health) similar to those for whom the new vaccine is intended. In Phase III, the vaccine is given to thousands of people and tested for efficacy and safety.

Thomas, who will help prepare vaccine trial data for submission to regulatory agencies like the FDA, said in a statement, “The Upstate team has worked incredibly hard to support Pfizer and their partners as we all try to find ways to stop this pandemic.”

“I’m proud one of New York’s foremost infectious disease experts has been selected to lead its worldwide vaccine trial,” said Cuomo in a statement. “On behalf of the family of New York I would like to thank Dr. Thomas for his work fighting this invisible enemy.”

As one of the global Phase III vaccine trial sites, SUNY Upstate Medical has enrolled more than 300 adult volunteers in the trial. The study of the vaccine candidate in younger volunteers will begin soon, with Upstate Medical being selected again as one of a few sites.

On Tuesday, Albany County’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, said, if the vaccine is distributed to her department, staff is ready to administer it.

“We at the county are working very closely on a vaccination plan,” said Whalen at a county press briefing. “We have been doing drills for years for mass vaccination clinics so it is something the staff is highly trained on.”

Whalen went on, “We have a drill at least three times a year to be able to vaccinate a large number of people in a short period of time and I have high confidence that we’ll be able to do that. The questions that still remain outstanding that we need to learn about are what’s the supply going to look like.”

Albany County’s executive, Daniel McCoy, echoed Whalen, saying, This is going to be a seamless operation. It’s going to be dependent on supply … We’re ready to roll.”

“The good news is that the Pfizer tests look good and we’ll have a vaccine shortly. The bad news is that it’s about two months before Joe Biden takes over and that means this administration is going to be implementing a vaccine plan,” Cuomo told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s Good Morning America on Nov. 9.

“The vaccine plan is very important,” Cuomo went on. “It’s probably the most ambitious undertaking since COVID began. Just to put it in focus, we did 120 million COVID tests in this nation over seven months, scrambling, doing everything we can. We now have to do 330 million vaccinations, maybe twice ... The Trump administration is rolling out the vaccination plan and I believe it’s flawed.”

Cuomo went over his concerns about using private health-care providers and pharmacy chains to administer vaccinations the same way they were used for COVID-19 testing, often ignoring poor brown and Black communities.

“We can’t let this vaccination plan go forward the way the Trump administration is designing it, Cuomo said. “Biden can’t undo it two months later. We’ll be in the midst of it.”

Cuomo, who chairs the National Governors Association, concluded, “I’ve been talking to governors across the nation about that — how can we shape the Trump administration vaccine plan to fix it or stop it before it does damage.”


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