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Virologist Discusses FDA's COVID-19 Vaccine Authorization


A milestone last night - the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine for emergency use. We're joined now by Dr. David Ho, the eminent virologist from Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. Ho, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID HO: Thank you, Scott. Good to be with you.

SIMON: Authorized for use, but it's going to be a gradual process, won't it?

HO: Indeed. I think everyone knows that the FDA will - has authorized this and will allow it to go into high-risk individuals first - residents of long-term health care facilities, as well as frontline health care workers. And that alone will take up about 20 million doses immediately.

SIMON: Doctor, I note that on the FDA review panel, there were four people involved in that process who didn't go along with the vote for authorization and one abstention. Do you have any idea why or any concerns that this vaccine has not been adequately tested before it starts going into people?

HO: No. I think the data are strong. The protective efficacy is very, very high, much higher than what we had expected. In terms of side effects, there are some but not major - some headache, some fatigue, of course some pain at the injection site. The objections, I think, are largely - center on the labeling of the use in adolescents between the ages of 16 to 18. Other than that, I don't think there were any major objections.

SIMON: Is this going to change life in America over the next few weeks, or not so fast?

HO: Not so fast. I think it's a momentous day. It's the beginning, but the deployment of this vaccine will take some time. It will go to the groups that I mentioned earlier, but for the general public, I think it's going to be well into next year before, you know, a given individual is vaccinated. And I think much of the rollout will have to take place probably in the second half of 2021.

SIMON: Any concerns about long-term side effects? I guess we will learn that as we go along.

HO: Yeah, only time will tell in terms of long-term side effects because the studies have been performed only the second half of this year. So we have limited data. And in terms of large data set, we only have that for approximately three months. So that's all we could say about duration for side effects.

SIMON: Yeah.

HO: And in addition, the protective efficacy, we only have about three months' worth of data. So we would have to continue to watch this and see how durable this protection is.

SIMON: And, Dr. Ho, of course, you are one of the world's most famous AIDS researchers. I believe you were a Time magazine Person of the Year a number of years ago for your work on that front. In the 45 seconds we have left, what should we learn from this episode in the world going forward about the future of epidemic diseases?

HO: Well, this is, you know, the worst pandemic over the past hundred years. And obviously, the situation now is worse than ever. However, I think this marks a turning point, as you had mentioned. And, you know, the speed with which this vaccine and other vaccine is being developed is really remarkable and is teaching us to imagine the previously unimaginable. And so we can respond very quickly and very well, as exemplified here.

SIMON: Dr. David Ho, thank you so much for being with us, sir.

HO: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.