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A COVID-19 Vaccine Is Here. But It's Not A 'Magic Bullet,' Experts Warn

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States across the Mountain West are receiving their first shipments of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. And the Moderna vaccine will be coming once it's granted emergency authorization by the FDA. But as distribution gets underway, other COVID-19 prevention measures including frequent hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing will still be necessary. 

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have been using mathematical models and computer simulations to get a clearer picture of how the pandemic will progress once the vaccination process begins. Ben McMahon, a mathematical epidemiologist and a member of the laboratory's Theoretical Biology Group, says the most important finding is about what the vaccine won't do.

"The vaccine is not going to be a magic bullet that makes all of this go away in the time scale of a couple of months," McMahon said. "It's going to help enormously, but it's going to be really important to continue the other methods of control throughout the vaccination process."

Based on preliminary data from clinical trials, McMahon said that the vaccine will be more than 90% effective in protecting individuals who have received it from getting sick. But it's not yet clear whether it will prevent those individuals from spreading the virus to others.

"If all we do is get vaccinated, and that provides 90% protection, and then we all take off our masks and go to the movie theater, we have exactly the same level of people dying as before," he said.

McMahon said we should think of vaccination as working alongside other prevention tools to drive down the prevalence of the virus.

"That's the only way immunocompromised people can be protected. That requires that the other isolation measures and the other preventative measures be applied together with the vaccine," he said.

Frontline healthcare workers are first in line to receive vaccine doses during this initial round of distribution. During a press conference Monday, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vesta Sandoval of New Mexico's Lovelace Health System said that won't change hospital protocols.

"Everyone is going to continue wearing their [personal protective equipment] and people will need to continue social distancing. [The vaccine] is not going to change those practices," Dr. Sandoval said. "That is something that I want the public to understand, and I really want them to understand that this is not a solution, so we can't deviate from the path we've been taking."

More information about whether immunization prevents the spread of the virus is forthcoming. Pfizer and Moderna each have plans to test trial participants for antibodies that will reveal whether they have been infected with the virus after being vaccinated.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 KUNM. To see more, visit .

Savannah Maher
Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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