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Trudeau Institute, Adirondack Health discuss vaccines

SARANAC LAKE — A team at Adirondack Medical Center is preparing for COVID-19 vaccine dissemination.

In a meeting with Assemblyman Billy Jones on Friday, Nov. 20, Adirondack Health CEO Sylvia Getman spoke about the hospital’s planning process as pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer apply for emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for new COVID-19 vaccines.

“There’s been significant planning, and a lot more ahead,” Getman told Jones, who visited AMC last week to tour the hospital’s new COVID-19 test lab. Adirondack Health and Trudeau Institute are fundraising $1.2 million to complete the initial buildout of this new lab.

Some vaccines in development that use genetic material have to be stored at a certain temperature with controlled humidity. Some of the vaccines have to be administered in two separate doses. Other vaccines in development are single-shot and don’t require temperature control.

All of these factors create a logistical puzzle for those applying to be vaccine distribution centers. Adirondack Health has submitted a general distribution plan to the state that it will adapt to “whatever extent necessary” when the national vaccine supply comes online, according to spokesman Matt Scollin.

“We are fortunate in that we do have some of the equipment that is necessary for the sub-zero storage in our laboratory. We can store the vaccine from Pfizer as needed,” Getman said. “We have a whole team right now that’s working on planning and learning, alongside the state and federal government, how this can be done safely and effectively, given the unique challenge around having to do two doses, making sure you’re not mixing different people getting different doses.

“The logistical challenge is significant, but I have to say, it’s probably the happiest headache I will ever have.”

Pfizer, which has worked with German company BioNTech on its new vaccine, recently announced that it had submitted its emergency authorization application to the FDA. A few days prior, the company announced that its late-stage vaccine trial showed its vaccine to be 95% effective with no serious side effects and an ability to prevent severe COVID-19 in older people, the New York Times reported. If authorized by the FDA, Pfizer’s vaccine could be administered to the first group of Americans by mid-December, according to the Times.

Another company working on a vaccine is Moderna, which announced preliminary results that showed its vaccine to be 94.5% effective. Moderna has also said it would apply for emergency authorization from the FDA.

The first Americans to receive a vaccine would likely be those who are most at risk, such as health care workers, emergency medical workers and nursing home residents, the Times reported recently. A vaccine that can be widely distributed among the greater public is likely months away.

“There are at least five different vaccines that are looking very good,” Trudeau Institute President Atsuo Kuki told Jones on Nov. 20. “Two that have made the most recent splash, which is the Pfizer with the German BioNTech and Moderna collaborating with NIH (National Institutes of Health), they’re great, but they’re absolutely new technology. This is the first time it’s ever moving toward approval with humans. I’m very excited about it, but it will provide certain kinds of immunity, and we don’t know yet how it will work for different age groups, in different situations and for people with preexisting conditions.

“Normally, when you go to your doctor, whether they’re an infectious disease doctor or your family care doctor, they have all this knowledge. ‘You should do this with this vaccine, you should do that with that vaccine.’ But that information was derived over 15 years, 20 years, 30 years. We learn a lot about how to effectively deploy vaccines into the heterogeneous population, where everybody has a different medical status, over years. So right now, we don’t have that. We have just very little information. However, it’s wonderful that these two vaccines are on the front using technology that we knew would be the fastest to be developed because all you need is the genetic code.”

Kuki also spoke about a vaccine in development by Johnson & Johnson, whose chief scientist recently told news wire service Reuters that it was recruiting 1,000 people for its late-stage vaccine trial. The company — which halted its trial in October after a participant got sick, and restarted the trial after getting approval from an independent safety panel — plans to have enough data to apply for FDA authorization early next year, according to Reuters.

Kuki said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single shot. “If they can do it, it’s a single-shot vaccine; people can do it without having to come back.”

Jones asked Kuki and Getman how the vaccine distribution will be coordinated and whether people will have their choice of vaccine.

“As of what we know today … I think you would get one type of vaccine; that’s my understanding,” Getman said.

Kuki added that the coronavirus pandemic has created an atmosphere of data sharing and collaboration within the scientific community that he’s never seen before.

“From a scientific point of view, the entire scientific output, biomedical output on the planet has been unleashed against COVID,” he said. “It has been the most intense, most coordinated, most data-sharing type of operation I’ve ever seen. It’s very public. And I think people don’t realize how much positive stuff is happening with the scientific community. It’s incredibly powerful.”

“There’s a lot of shots we have against this virus,” he added. “The actual situation is, we will manage to contain this virus in terms of having people vaccinated. But it will be a process of getting better across 2021.”

Getman echoed that point: Things will get better.

“We know how tired people are. We’re tired. We also know that this isn’t forever,” she said. “If we can think a little creatively, if we can hang in a little longer, if we can learn to love our masks, I think we can get through this period. We know that there’s good solutions coming.”