When Will Families Be Able to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine? Here's What Experts Say

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With COVID-19 cases soaring, the whole country seems to be holding its breath waiting for the latest results in vaccine clinical trials. "We don't know the full story yet and are terribly impatient to know," said Christine Turley, M.D., pediatrician and vice chairman of research for Atrium Health Levine Children's.
When experts realized the widespread severity of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, they rushed to develop an effective vaccine. Several candidates have passed Phase 3 trials - that is, they have been awarded to hundreds of thousands of volunteers and are rigorously assessed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Two specific vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, are currently the front runners, and both have success rates of around 95 percent.
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Parents can breathe a sigh of relief when they know that an effective vaccine is expected to hit the market in 2021. However, there is a chance your kids won't be the number one priority to get it. You can thank the FDA's rigorous testing and research protocols. Read on to find out more about the expected schedule for a COVID-19 vaccine, who will likely receive it first, and when it will be available to the public.
The estimated schedule for a COVID-19 vaccine
To gain FDA approval, vaccine candidates must go through a rigorous testing process. "The FDA requires at least two months of safety data, involvement of all groups (including those at high risk) and at least 30,000 participants," says Dr. Purvi Parikh, allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network and co-investigator on the vaccine trials. "[The FDA] also set up an independent panel of scientists to review the vaccine data." Among other things, the scientists will study all side effects of the vaccine, dosage and frequency.
If all goes well, experts hope that a vaccine candidate will receive an "emergency clearance" by Christmas. In fact, one candidate (Pfizer) is already planning to apply for an emergency permit. This is not the same as traditional FDA approval, explains Dr. Parikh as it means the vaccine can only be used on certain high risk people.
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"[The vaccine] is still considered experimental and more studies are yet to be done," says Dr. Parikh. "Full final FDA approval is pending and will meet common requirements and requirements." Only after this full FDA approval will the vaccine be available to the public.
Who will receive the COVID-19 vaccine first?
Once the FDA clears a vaccine for approval for emergency use, it will only be given to people at high risk. Healthcare workers are a top priority. "They carry so much additional risk because of their daily exposure," says Dr. Turley. Others who might qualify include the elderly, people with underlying health conditions (like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes), high-risk ethnic groups, and people from certain zip codes, says Dr. Parikh.
It's essentially a game of weighing pros and cons. Experts need to use the available safety data to determine that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the potential risks. "There are limited doses of the vaccine, so we need to prioritize those at the highest risk of serious COVID-19 complications," explains Dr. Parikh.
When will my family get a COVID-19 vaccine?
There's no clear answer as the FDA will be collecting safety data several months after a vaccine candidate is granted emergency approval, says Dr. Turley. Experts want to ensure the safety of the vaccine before they make it available to the public. Dr. Turley and Dr. Parikh both hope that a coronavirus vaccine will be approved for community use by mid-2021. However, you are not sure who exactly can get it then.
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So far, only healthy adults have been included in the clinical studies. Children are missing noticeably - although Pfizer recently started testing children as young as 12 and other vaccine candidates are likely to follow suit. Why were children excluded? This is in part due to ethical reasons as children do not fully understand the exams and cannot agree to them. In addition, children have different bodies and different immune systems than adults. Therefore, experts want to thoroughly understand the safety risks before undergoing pediatric tests.
People at high risk, who are more likely to have negative consequences, have also been excluded from the studies so far. The same goes for pregnant women. "They are usually postponed to studies because of unknown risks to the fetus and mother, since pregnancy itself is an immunocompromised condition," says Dr. Turley
It is possible that the vaccine will be approved for everyone in mid-2021 - including children and pregnant women. However, it is also possible that the FDA may conduct additional testing first, which could delay availability for certain groups. We won't know for sure until more data is released in the coming months.
Is the vaccine safe for my family?
Thanks to the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine, many people are understandably concerned. Dr. Turley stresses, however, that all safety procedures in the clinical trials were properly followed and only the administrative components were expedited. "The FDA worked closely with vaccine experts to investigate a vaccine design for COVID-19," she says. "It usually takes a long time to design a study, which adds to the length of time it takes to get the vaccine approved, but this was discussed before we even had a candidate."
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Dr. Parikh also stresses that you shouldn't fear FDA-cleared vaccines. "If a vaccine is approved and you're in a risk group like a health worker or have a high-risk condition, discuss with your doctor whether the vaccine is right for you," she says. "If you are advised to receive the vaccine, don't be afraid of the vaccine, as the risk of infection can outweigh the risks of the vaccine." Widespread vaccination will help stop COVID-19 and bring everyone back to life as we knew it.

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