With the FDA’s emergency authorization of the first COVID-19 vaccine imminent, the biggest and most complex vaccination campaign in the nation’s history is gearing into action. Planes are ferrying vaccines around the country, hospitals are readying ultracold freezers, and the very first people outside of clinical trials will soon get shots in their arms. The end of the pandemic is in sight.
But vaccines are not an off switch. It will take several months to vaccinate enough Americans to resume normal life, and this interim could prove long, confusing, and chaotic. The next six months will almost certainly bring delays in vaccine timelines, fights over vaccine priority, and questions about how immune the newly vaccinated are and how they should behave. We’ve spent 2020 adjusting to a pandemic normal, and now a strange, new period is upon us. Call it vaccine purgatory.
The biggest unknown is how long we will be left in purgatory. Operation Warp Speed officials have laid out an aggressive timeline to get nearly all Americans vaccinated by June, but this presumes several pieces going perfectly. The Pfizer vaccine, which was just recommended for FDA authorization, and the Moderna vaccine, which is expected to follow next week, cannot hit manufacturing delays, and additional vaccine candidates, from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, must earn speedy authorization from the FDA early next year. Pfizer earlier revised down the number of doses it will deliver in 2020 and separately has said it cannot supply any additional doses to the U.S., beyond the 100 million already ordered, before June. The timeline for authorizing AstraZeneca’s vaccine is up in the air after a messy clinical trial. And Johnson & Johnson’s has not yet been proved to work.