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The Latest On COVID-19 Vaccines


Today, regulators in the U.K. have given emergency authorization to a COVID-19 vaccine made by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. And regulators in India seem ready to do the same. In this country, though, the Food and Drug Administration appears to be waiting for the results of a large study with 30,000 volunteers before it makes any decision about that vaccine. Joining me now to talk about when that might happen and what other vaccines are coming along is NPR's Joe Palca.

Hey, Joe.


CHANG: Hey. So at the moment, let's just take stock here. The FDA has granted emergency use authorization to a vaccine made by Moderna and another by Pfizer-BioNTech. How likely do you think it will be before we see an authorization for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine?

PALCA: Well, it's going to be a while, in part because the U.S. regulators have set out a series of expectations for the kinds of clinical trials they'll be looking for in order to make a decision. And they want something, I think, that's a little closer to what Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech did. And the studies that AstraZeneca-Oxford have done so far don't meet that threshold. But the company is doing a large 30,000-person study in this country, so that should do the trick if it proves effective there.

CHANG: OK. So what do you think is coming next for this country?

PALCA: Well, I spoke with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. And he said that more than likely the next vaccine on the - coming through will be from Janssen or Janson (ph), which is the vaccine division of Johnson & Johnson. And that vaccine has an interesting advantage. It's a single-dose vaccine. It's being studied in 45,000 volunteers. And the interim results from that should be available in the next month or so. And then it shouldn't be too long after that before an emergency use authorization is at least applied for and maybe granted. And then Fauci says he expects the results from the AstraZeneca trial will be - is running - will be after that.

ANTHONY FAUCI: And then right after that is the Novavax, which started a couple of days ago.

PALCA: And Novavax makes another kind of vaccine. And as Fauci just said, they started a large study of 30,000 volunteers in this country and Mexico. And they are already running a study in the U.K. with 15,000 volunteers.

CHANG: Wow. OK. So what is that? Five different vaccines - do we really need five different vaccines to bring this pandemic under control, at least in the U.S.?

PALCA: Yeah. Well, you have to remember, Ailsa, that once upon a time, it wasn't clear that any of these would work. And so they were all developed in parallel with the idea that hopefully one would work. And now, of course, where expectations have been raised significantly since the first two worked so well. But I asked Fauci that very question.

FAUCI: I think in the big picture of things, Joe, we're going to need all of them to get the entire country vaccinated.

PALCA: And a good, big part of the reason for that is there's only so much Moderna and Pfizer can do to ramp up production.

CHANG: That's a good point. Well, President-elect Biden has said he wants to vaccinate 100 million people in the first 100 days of his administration. How feasible is that, you think?

PALCA: Well, it's possible, but as Biden himself said, it's not going to happen at the pace it's going now.


PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN: It's going to take years, not months, to vaccinate the American people.

PALCA: Now, part of it will involve making more vaccine, but part will be sorting out the logistics to make sure everyone can actually get the vaccine once it becomes available.

CHANG: That is NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca.

Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
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