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A boost in the fight against COVID-19

A boost in the fight against COVID-19

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In the global fight against the COVID-19 virus the smart money is on developing a safe and effective vaccine. While resistance against vaccinations is widespread (and not only in the U.S.), there really isn’t an alternative that packs as much of a wallop against the virus; however, vaccines are only one weapon in our defensive arsenal, which also includes distancing, handwashing, and mask-wearing. Employers need to continue to educate and encourage their employees to continue to deploy all of these methods if we’re to return to anything like normal.

How the vaccine strategy plays out

The goal of any vaccine is to train the body’s immune system to identify the virus and related memory cells that will provide immunity. The strategy behind COVID vaccines (and there are over 200 possible candidates in active clinical trials) is to use messenger RNA to replicate the coronavirus protein. Once introduced to the body, the immune system goes on the attack. By teaching our antibodies to recognize a coronavirus-like invader, they are ready to fight when the real thing happens.

It’s amazing that we will have a highly effective vaccine available in the same calendar year the novel virus hit our shores—vaccine development normally takes years. But collaboration across governments, universities, drug manufacturers, and other research institutes has sped progress. And we had a big head start. Much was already known about COVID-19 from research on SARS-Cov 1 and MERS-Cov, the two strains of virus that cause the disease. With government investment to help reduce the R&D risk for manufacturers and the use of new approaches and new technologies, the world has been able to progress far more rapidly than ever before.

Vaccine candidates nearing approval

Multiple vaccines will be available over next year. Each will have a different level of efficacy and side effect profile depending on who gets it, but having multiple vaccines will help get the best possible vaccine for each individual person.

There are four vaccine candidates in Phase III trials:  Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca/University of Oxford, and Novavax. We expect that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine will receive emergency use approval in the U.S. within weeks, and Moderna could receive the same approval before year end.

Everything depends on each meeting clear standards around safety, efficacy, manufacturing protocols and overcoming distribution challenges. (While Pfizer is claiming a 90% effectiveness rate in trials, we must remember that this is based only on their press release; while their trial protocols are known, the data on test results hasn’t yet been released at this writing.)

Addressing legitimate doubts

But the greatest challenge for employers is in informing the workforce. The safety data looks encouraging from the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with 45,000 people dosed so far. Despite those positive results, there is significant doubt, at least in the U.S., about the safety of these treatments. Many people will not get a vaccine of any kind, let alone one that was developed at warp speed. Employers should be aware that education on safety, effectiveness of the vaccine, and the process of being vaccinated will have to be a priority. (For instance, the Pfizer vaccine is administered in two doses; missing the second one largely invalidates the initial shot.)

Employers should develop a communication plan that provides proven and open information, directs people to reliable resources, and addresses concerns among each segment of the workforce about safety. Through global efforts to defeat this virus, we are at a point now where we can all do more than just hope. Help is on the way and employers must do their part to increase awareness and address possible concerns across their entire employee population.

Editor’s note: There is a cost to employers for the vaccines. This requirement was included in the CARES Act for non-grandfathered plans. Please see our Buck FYI for details.

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