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A COVID-19 vaccine may be given emergency use approval as soon as November. CESAR MANSO/Getty Images
  • Pfizer announced this week that early data shows its experimental vaccine may be 90 percent effective.
  • If its COVID-19 vaccine is given emergency use approval, Pfizer could start to release it in December.
  • But it will likely take months before most people in the United States have access to the vaccine.

Now that we’ve got some good news regarding Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, the next big question is: When will we get it?

First, it’s important to remember that Pfizer hasn’t released the results in a peer-reviewed medical journal and that it still has to get emergency use approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Even if Pfizer’s vaccine gets the FDA’s emergency use approval, the process to develop, test, manufacture, distribute, storage and administer the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t a quick one

And health officials still need to nail down who is going to get vaccinated first.

The most likely group to get the vaccine first is healthcare workers on the front lines, followed by high-risk individuals and older adults.

Pfizer will have approximately 50 million vaccine doses at the get-go, so it’d take several months before the vaccine makes its way to the general population.

Health experts expect to see vaccinations start in December, before expanding to other high-risk groups toward the end of the first quarter of 2021.

“This will be an ongoing effort through the many months of 2021. We can’t do this in a week and a half,” Dr. William Schaffner, the medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told Healthline.

Pfizer’s vaccine trial isn’t over yet.

There are still a couple more weeks of research required to gather more safety data.

At that point, which is estimated to be around the third week of November, the pharmaceutical company hopes to submit its findings to the FDA for emergency use authorization (EUA).

“FDA will review in under 4 weeks or so and if EUA is granted, could initiate distribution as early as late December,” said Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine who is the principal investigator of the Pfizer trial at Yale School of Medicine.

Assuming all goes smoothly with the review and approval process, Schaffner said it’s conceivable that the first rollout of the vaccine could start toward the end of December.

Distributing and storing the Pfizer vaccine is complicated because it needs to be stored at frigid temperatures, around -70°C (-94°F).

“There will be real logistical, educational, and organization challenges here,” Schaffner said.

The doses will be distributed to predetermined locations (set by the state health departments) in cases packed with dry ice.

Once the vaccine doses reach their final location (a hospital, a nursing home or a retail pharmacy), they may be put on new dry ice or stored in cooling units.

According to Schaffner, some state health departments may invest in mobile units to deliver the immunizations at various sites, such as nursing homes and hospitals.

“Get your popcorn because this could be orchestration and coordination at its best,” said Dr. Daniel Fagbuyi, an emergency physician who served as a biodefense expert in the Obama administration.

Pfizer is estimated to produce about 50 million doses before the end of the year.

The vaccine is given in two doses, 21 days apart. This means that only 25 million people will have access to the first batch.

“People will be prioritized to finish their series, their two-dose series, before you go onto another person, because it takes two doses to assure protection,” Schaffner said.

Health officials are still working to pin down exactly who will get the vaccine first.

Schaffner expects different groups to be prioritized in different parts of the country.

Though that prioritization has yet to be confirmed, Schaffer said that healthcare workers in nursing homes and first responders will likely be the first group to get vaccinated.

Pfizer expects to have more than 1 billion doses sometime in 2021.

When more doses are available in 2021, the next high-priority group — which could be either high-risk older adults or essential workers — will be vaccinated.

Between February and March, there should be enough doses to reach these other high-priority segments, Schaffner said.

The general population’s opportunity to get vaccinated may come toward the middle or end of 2021.

“[This] will take 3 to 6 months because of both production and distribution challenges,” Ogbuagu said. “And [the] requirement for two doses means that a lot of doses are needed.”

Fagbuyi said that the vaccine may start reaching the general population around March or April.

It could “be in full swing by June 2021 factoring the concatenation of logistical hurdles and inevitable room for error,” Fagbuyi said.

Another reason it’s tricky to nail down the exact timeline for the COVID-19 vaccine is that some people may be skeptical about getting vaccinated.

“There’s a lot of skepticism and reluctance among all the medical professions just as there is in the general populous,” Schaffner said.

In some locations, there may be enough doses unclaimed from the initial batch that people from the second-priority groups may be able to get vaccinated.

Local health officials will need to be flexible.

“If you can’t get rid of the vaccine into group one, if there aren’t enough takers, then you’d like to move into group two because there’s no sense in keeping vaccine unused in the refrigerator,” Schaffner said. “You’d like to get vaccine into arms.”

And people will still need to wear face coverings like masks even after getting vaccinated.

The vaccine’s 90 percent effectiveness is a great accomplishment, but that still means there’s a 10 percent chance that the people who get the vaccine will get the infection.

It’s also still unclear whether the vaccine prevents transmission of the virus or prevents disease.

Those answers will likely come later next year.

“We’ll keep having to wear masks in order to protect ourselves and others,” Schaffner said.

Pfizer announced this week that its COVID-19 vaccine is 90 percent effective. The next big question is: When will people start getting it?

Due to the limited availability of doses, the vaccine will be administered to select groups first.

If the FDA grants Pfizer an emergency use authorization (EUA), that process could kick off with healthcare workers and first responders in December.

Other parts of the population, such as essential workers and high-risk individuals, could see a vaccine around February or March.

The general population may see doses head their way toward the middle or end of 2021.