Science may have found light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
On consecutive Mondays, two U.S.-based pharmaceutical companies — Pfizer and Moderna — have announced success in large-scale testing of COVID-19 vaccines.
While there remains the necessary approval for emergency use from U.S. regulators and the creation of a logistical chain stretching from production to vaccination, the first doses may be available by the year’s end, with wider distribution in the first quarter of 2021.
Among those in the forefront of the breakthroughs are scientists and medical researchers with Jewish family histories.
Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, is the son of Holocaust survivors, among those left after the Nazis exterminated all but a remnant of a Jewish community numbering some 50,000 in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki, primarily descended from Sephardic Jews who fled Spain in 1492.
Bourla announced Nov. 9 that a COVID-19 vaccine developed in conjunction with the German biotech firm BioNTech — itself a company founded by the children of Turkish immigrants to Germany — had achieved a 90 percent effectiveness rate in preventing infection among people who previously had not been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19.
In a statement released by Pfizer, Bourla said, “We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen. With today’s news, we are a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis.”
A week later, on Nov. 16, Moderna, working with researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, announced development of a vaccine with an effectiveness rate of 94.5 percent.
Moderna’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, is an Israeli with degrees from Ben-Gurion University. He told the Axios news that he kept in mind his mother, a woman in her 80s now living in the Israeli city of Ra’anana. “I want these data out as soon as I humanely can possibly get them. We have been working days, nights, 24/7 . . . I don’t think this was humanely possible to do any sooner,” Zaks said.
What made these announcements all the more stunning was not only the speed at which these companies produced their vaccines but that their results far exceeded what had been anticipated in terms of effectiveness.
The Moderna announcement was cause for celebration at Emory University, where a portion of the phase one vaccine human trials, involving several dozen volunteers age 56 and older, began in March. Those trials yielded evidence of “neutralizing antibodies” in quantities comparable to what was found in people who had survived COVID-19. This paved the way for larger scale testing that began in late July with upwards of 30,000 volunteers, including several hundred at three Atlanta sites: The Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center, the Emory-Children’s Center, and Grady Health’s clinic.
Pfizer and Moderna plan to seek emergency use approval from the Food and Drug Administration within a few weeks as additional data on their vaccines’ safety and efficacy comes available. Both vaccines use a synthetic version of the COVID virus’ genetic material to cause a patient’s immune system to ward off any evidence of the real virus. Among the as-yet unanswered questions is how long the vaccines will protect against the virus, along with what effect the vaccines might have on those with asymptomatic infections. Moderna’s vaccine was reported to have side effects that eased in days.
Pfizer’s announcement came six months after human trials began. Bourla told Forbes magazine, “How fast we moved is not something you could expect from the big, powerful pharma. This is speed that you would envy in an entrepreneurial founder-based biotech.”
Pfizer was the only U.S.-based pharmaceutical company not to take development money as part of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed. “I wanted to liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy,” Bourla told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” Sept. 13. “When you get money from someone, that always comes with strings. They want to see how we are going to progress, what type of moves you are going to do. They want reports. I didn’t want to have any of that. … Basically I gave them an open checkbook so that they can worry only about scientific challenges, not anything else. And also, I wanted to keep Pfizer out of politics.”
Pfizer did negotiate a production and delivery deal with the U.S. government worth up to $1.95 billion, to secure an initial 100 million doses of its vaccine, with an option to purchase an additional 500 million.
Moderna, which received $2.5 billion in development aid through Operation Warp Speed, had begun work on potential pandemic responses even prior to COVID-19. It hopes to have an initial 20 million doses of its vaccine available in the United States by year’s end, with ramped-up operations producing several hundred million more doses.
Even with the optimism prompted by the breakthroughs, there are caveats, not the least of which is the apparatus that will be necessary to transport, store, distribute, and administer the vaccines. Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be kept very cold, at temperatures colder than minus-100 F when transported, while Moderna’s reportedly can be transported and stored at less extreme sub-zero temperatures.
The vaccine will be a two-dose process, the second shot three weeks after the first. According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans will receive the vaccine free. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Nov. 16 told ABC News’ “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” that when the first doses are available, perhaps by the end of 2020, CDC guidance will determine who receives it first. “It’ll be wherever it’s going to add the most value according to the data and the science and the recommendations of our experts,” Azar said.
The urgency in developing a vaccine is evident in the virus’ toll. As of Nov. 17, according to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, COVID-19 cases globally exceeded 55.2 million and deaths more than 1.33 million. In the United States, there have been more than 11.2 million cases and 247,000 deaths. Georgia’s Department of Public Health reports more than 387,000 confirmed cases and 8,471 deaths.
Israel has suffered more than 323,000 cases and 2,732 deaths.
Zaks estimated that the Moderna vaccine would reach Israel by early next year. Television reports said that Israel had purchased 1 million to 2 million doses. “I cannot give an exact number, but I can guarantee that we are making every effort to supply the vaccines to Israel, as we promised,” Zaks told Israel television Channel 12. “Israel is among the first group of countries that signed with us. We will fulfill our side of the agreement.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Nov. 13 that Israel also had a deal to purchase 8 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, enough to inoculate 4 million people. Israel reportedly had not been intensively engaged in talks with Pfizer prior to phone calls between Netanyahu and Bourla.
Pfizer CEO Bourla studied at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, graduated with a doctorate in veterinary medicine and worked as a veterinarian. He joined Pfizer in 1993, rising through the ranks in the animal health division, and later in roles throughout the world, including as group president of Pfizer’s Global Vaccines, Oncology and Consumer Healthcare division. Bourla was promoted to CEO last year.
Even as the world heralded news of a potential vaccine, there was room for anti-Semitism. The Greek newspaper Makeleio, which has a reputation of Jew hatred, launched a campaign targeting Bourla. A Nov. 10 front page article pictured him and Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele. Another showed striped concentration camp uniforms alongside a headline that read, “Jewish veterinarian will stick a needle in us! Nightmarish forced admissions in ‘concentration camps’ like herds.”
In response, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece said, “The identification of the CEO of Pfizer with Mengele, the so-called butcher of Auschwitz, is an appalling and unethical assault against Albert Bourla only because he is a Jew. The huge-lettered headline is nothing but a clear incitement to violence against the Jews.”
The Greek Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs also condemned the paper in a statement, calling it the “most vile anti-Semitism reminiscent of the Middle Ages.”
- Dave Schechter
- Emory University
- COVID Vaccine
- Albert Bourla
- Holocaust Survivor
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
- Tal Zaks
- The Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center
- the Emory-Children’s Center
- Grady Health
- Operation Warp Speed
- Donald Trump
- Trump administration
- Alex Azar
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention