Pfizer announces encouraging COVID vaccine breakthrough

Pfizer’s COVID vaccine candidate was 90% effective in advanced trials

Today's expression: In sight
Explore more: Lesson #315
November 26, 2020:

Finally, some encouraging news in 2020. Pfizer, the global pharmaceutical company, announced that their COVID vaccine candidate was more than 90% effective in advanced trials. Several countries have already put in orders for hundreds of millions of doses. But are they getting ahead of themselves? Plus, learn the English expression “in sight.”

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Promising news on a COVID vaccine

Lesson summary

Hi there, here we go again for Plain English, your recipe for success in all things English. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and you are listening to lesson 315. That means you can find the full lesson at PlainEnglish.com/315.

Coming up today: A COVID vaccine recently completed its Phase III trial and it was shown to be ninety-five percent effective, raising hopes that the end of this pandemic is in sight. Speaking of which “in sight” is the expression we’ll review in the second half of the lesson. And JR has a song of the week.

COVID vaccine trial

Pfizer, the global pharmaceutical company, and BioNTech, a relatively young biotech startup, have announced that their COVID vaccine candidate was over 95 percent effective in advanced trials, raising hopes that an effective vaccine could be approved by the end of 2020. Shortly after the Pfizer news was announced, Moderna, another large pharmaceutical company, announced its vaccine, based on similar technology, was also about 95 percent effective.

British prime minister Boris Johnson, American president-elect Joe Biden, and other national leaders congratulated Pfizer on its news, but were also quick to warn their populations that this is no reason to relax social distancing and ease up on compliance with new lockdown requirements. Still, the news was undoubtedly good and holds promise that the end of the global pandemic may just be in sight.

Each vaccine uses relatively new genetic technology to build an immune system response to the virus. In a traditional vaccine, a mostly-harmless, low concentration of a relative of the disease is injected into your system—just enough to trigger your body’s defenses, but not enough to make you sick. It’s a tough balancing act to get that vaccine cocktail right, and many people do still get mild symptoms from traditional vaccines.

A genetic vaccine takes a different approach. These vaccines contain special RNA instructions that trick your body into fighting the virus even when it hasn’t had the virus. Here’s how it’s supposed to work: each virus has a set of receptor proteins. The virus uses these proteins to access the inside of your cells, where it can reproduce and make you sick. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines contain messenger RNA—or mRNA—that will cause your cells to produce the proteins found on the COVID virus—but only the proteins.

By themselves, unattached to the virus, these proteins are harmless. But they tell a patient’s body that an invader might be present, so the immune system springs into action. A patient’s immune system begins fighting the virus before the patient is infected. Therefore, if the patient does get infected later, if the virus does enter the patient’s body, then his or her immune system is already in fighting mode and is able to fight off the virus. If the virus is defeated before it can get into your cells, then the virus cannot reproduce, the patient doesn’t get sick, and the patient doesn’t spread the virus to anyone else.

That’s the theory. To test the theory, Pfizer administered its vaccine to 43,000 people in six countries in a large Phase III trial; that’s more subjects than are normally included in trials. Half the participants got the test vaccine; half got a placebo. Pfizer then followed up with both sets of participants to see how they were doing after a few weeks. Of the total population, 94 people got COVID. The test group, the group that got the vaccine, represented just ten percent of the COVID illnesses. The control group, the group that got the placebo, represented the vast majority of participants that got sick. From that data, Pfizer was able to conclude that the vaccine was more than 95 percent effective. They were able to conclude that, among people who got the true vaccine, 95 percent of probable COVID infections were stopped. Moderna’s results were similar, with a similarly large sample size.

Regulators had been hoping for a vaccine to be 70 percent effective and they would have accepted one that was just 50 percent effective; the 95 percent result was a pleasant surprise. A vaccine doesn’t have to work on everyone—and it doesn’t even have to be given to everyone—in order to be successful for society. If enough people get it and respond, the virus’s transmission can be slowed or even stopped. A vaccine with higher effectiveness means that fewer people can be vaccinated to slow the virus’s spread. Both companies expect to apply for regulatory approval in December.

Governments around the world have already placed orders for this vaccine. Time is of the essence: Pfizer is already manufacturing its vaccine, despite not having received approval yet. The European Union has ordered 200 million doses, the US 100 million, and the UK 40 million. As big as these orders are, they will only cover 170 million of the world’s seven billion people, as each person needs two doses, 21 days apart. But the companies are optimistic they can ramp up production in 2021. Pfizer says it can produce 1.3 billion doses in 2021. And other companies are also pursuing vaccines; some of those are using the same basic technology and approach as the Pfizer vaccine.

The vaccines will not be easy to distribute. They must be kept at -70 degrees Celsius, so they needs to be stored and transported at very cold temperatures. Germany, for example, is already planning special vaccination centers that will be equipped with super-cold vaccine freezers. That’s a challenge in any country, but will be especially difficult in developing countries, where the infrastructure is not as advanced. BioNTech is investigating whether the vaccine might still be effective if it’s stored for a few days closer to 0 Celsius.

How much are you hearing?

Hey a quick reminder that our lessons include exercises and quizzes to help you reinforce what you’re learning. One of those exercises is a listening exercise. Now you are listening now and I bet you understand the main ideas. Some of you understand 90 percent of the words, some even 95 percent of the words. But are you understanding 100 percent? That’s what the listening exercises will tell you. You’ll listen to an excerpt of the program and your job is to write every word you hear. When you press “submit,” it will tell you if you heard correctly. That’s great to make sure you’re picking up all those little connecting words that we sometimes skip over when we listen. Hey, I know: I’m guilty of that in Spanish. But this can help keep you honest and make sure you’re truly hearing every word. And it’s included in Plain English Plus+. These exercises go all the way back to lesson 179, so there’s plenty to keep you busy. To join Plain English Plus+, just visit PlainEnglish.com/Plus.

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Expression: In sight