Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

High hopes for a pandemic vaccine depend on people actually taking it

News that a vaccine being developed by Pfizer is already more than 90 per cent effective astounded the world early this week. As John Gushue writes, the week was laden by staggering counts of new infection — and more evidence about why some people resist immunization at all.

A vaccine in development shows great promise, but COVID-19 is still showing how fierce it can be

The news of a potential COVID-19 vaccine was welcome news this week, but ensuing announcements made it clear there's still a long way to go in the fight against the novel coronavirus. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

It's been an extraordinary week on the front lines of disease and immunization, with a bombshell announcement providing extraordinary hope at the beginning of the week, followed by sobering announcements every day thereafter, including a few reminders about how difficult it can be to eradicate disease.

In the midst of it all is our little corner of Canada, which has largely been escaping the escalating fusillade that this fall's wave of COVID-19 has been unleashing in much of the country. We'll get to that situation in a bit.

But first, let's look at global developments that are likely to affect us here, too.

It's hard to come up with a story that blew the U.S. presidential election from the top spot of the world's media, but it happened on Monday. That's when drug manufacturer Pfizer announced that it and its partner, the German company BioNTech SE, have a vaccine nearing completion that is more than 90 per cent effective.

Carl Zimmer, a science writer for the New York Times who has covered the competing trials for a COVID-19 vaccine, told the paper's podcast The Daily that he at first thought the 90 per cent figure might be a typo. "It's astonishing, because we didn't even know that this would work at all, period," he said. With Pfizer hoping to have its first vaccines available in January, "it shatters all records for vaccine development."

Closer to home, Memorial University professor Rod Russell, who specializes in viral immunology, was excited — but also a little apprehensive — to learn the results.

"Ninety per cent is a huge number. It's a surprising number. It's better than anybody was predicting or expecting," Russell told the St. John's Morning Show Friday. "With this comes some skepticism." Russell notes that Pfizer did not release the actual data that informed that efficiency rate, leaving the ground clear for what he called "science by media" in which scientists cannot assess data themselves. 

Upon the news Monday, the stock markets went ballistic, buoyed as well by the resolution of the U.S. presidential race last Saturday. Political leaders the world over were optimistic about Pfizer's, though also cautious. "We see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

WATCH: See how world markets reacted to the Pfizer announcement: 

Prospect of Pfizer vaccine boosts stock market

2 years ago
Duration 1:31
Stock markets surged Monday partly because of news surrounding the Pfizer vaccine. But not all of them. The winners and losers reveal that investors are betting on a return to normal.

There's still quite quite a lot to be accomplished, and proven, before Pfizer or other companies can introduce successful and safe vaccines. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will also require quite the effort, as it's introduced in two doses, at least a week apart. As well, it requires what's called a cold chain — a well-established practice in immunization, in which vaccines are kept at certain temperatures or else get spoiled. The problem? As Bloomberg News put it, "Countries will need to build from scratch the deep-freeze production, storage and transportation networks needed for the vaccine to survive. The massive investment and co-ordination required all but ensures that only rich nations are guaranteed access — and even then perhaps only their urban populations."

Other vaccines are deep into late-stage clinical trials, which makes it likely that the world will be relying on different vaccines and strategies to beat COVID-19 in 2021.

But we still have to get through 2020, and that brings us back to the horrible, escalating news of the week. Every day came infection numbers that are, well, staggering. Just this month, the U.S. passed a gruesome threshold, with more than 100,000 new infections in a single day.

On Thursday, that number blew past 160,000 — a development that shows that this fall's ordeal with the virus has been worse than the spring.

WATCH: Learn why scientists are tracking the clinical trial of the new Pfizer vaccine: 

COVID-19: What Pfizer’s vaccine trial means for the pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 6:07
Infectious disease doctors answer questions about the COVID-19 pandemic and what the announcement by Pfizer about its early results from its vaccine means.

In Canada, more than 5,500 cases were reported on Thursday alone — a record. (You can track the country's experience on this CBC interactive tracker.)

One of the most startling developments involving diseases this week, though, involved not coronavirus but something we thought we had conquered: measles. A report released Thursday showed that the number of deaths of measles hit the highest tally in more than two decades. Some 207,500 people died of measles in 2019, up by half from just five years earlier.

A confounding factor is that measles is preventable through a readily available vaccine. However, immunization rates have lagged.

Hesitancy about measles vaccination is notorious, as it was widely linked to a fraudulent and retracted article in the medical journal Lancet that linked the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to autism. It's been more than a decade since the Lancet retracted the article, but old rumours die hard — especially in the current digital environment, where conspiracy theories mutate faster than actual viruses.

On the local front

Meanwhile, it says something about the COVID situation in Newfoundland and Labrador that one of the key points this week had to do with a warning to not sit on Santa's knee at the mall. Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province's chief medical officer of health, brought out a familiar tone of caution at the weekly briefing Thursday, and that meant some familiar Christmas traditions need to be parked in the pandemic.

LISTEN: Memorial University virologist Rod Russell speaks to Krissy Holmes on the St. John's Morning Show: 

N.L.'s experience this fall has — so far — been altogether different from most provinces in the country. But the fact that we're all connected in the country, and knowing that the virus can travel from one place to another, means a pragmatic approach and not loosening travel rules for family and friends wanting to come home for Christmas. In other words, a 14-day self-isolation will still be necessary.

"It would be the wrong decision right now for us to open up non-essential travel as … jurisdictions tighten their restrictions in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19," Fitzgerald said.

That approach may feel Scrooge-like to people who had been hoping for a jolly blowout over the holidays. But remember this: the day that Fitzgerald made those remarks was also the day that Canada set another record of COVID-19 cases.

We may have just over a handful of active cases at the moment, but we're still very much woven into a global pandemic.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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