For all that scientists have done to tame the biological world, there are still things that lie outside the realm of human knowledge. The coronavirus was one such alarming reminder, when it emerged with murky origins in late 2019 and found naive, unwitting hosts in the human body. Even as science began to unravel many of the virus’s mysteries—how it spreads, how it tricks its way into cells, how it kills—a fundamental unknown about vaccines hung over the pandemic and our collective human fate: Vaccines can stop many, but not all, viruses. Could they stop this one?
The answer, we now know, is yes. A resounding yes. Pfizer and Moderna have separately released preliminary data that suggest their vaccines are both more than 90 percent effective, far more than many scientists expected. Neither company has publicly shared the full scope of their data, but independent clinical-trial monitoring boards have reviewed the results, and the FDA will soon scrutinize the vaccines for emergency use authorization. Unless the data take an unexpected turn, initial doses should be available in December.
The tasks that lie ahead—manufacturing vaccines at scale, distributing them via a cold or even ultracold chain, and persuading wary Americans to take them—are not trivial, but they are all within the realm of human knowledge. The most tenuous moment is over: The scientific uncertainty at the heart of COVID-19 vaccines is resolved. Vaccines work. And for that, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief. “It makes it now clear that vaccines will be our way out of this pandemic,” says Kanta Subbarao, a virologist at the Doherty Institute, who has studied emerging viruses.