A COVID-19 vaccine could be authorized within a few weeks — when can you get one?

Pfizer has said it will seek emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration within a few days. When will the vaccine be available to the general public?
/ Source: TODAY

Within the past 10 days, two major pharmaceutical companies have made headlines by declaring their COVID-19 vaccine candidates to be more than 90% effective, shining a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel in the process. Still, it could be months before most of the population is able to receive the vaccine.

Pfizer — which announced last week that its candidate is 90% effective based on preliminary data and has since revised its efficacy to 95% percent — said earlier this week it would seek emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration "within days." Moderna announced Monday that preliminary clinical trials show its candidate is 94.5% effective, and that it will seek approval in the coming weeks.

When will a COVID-19 vaccine be released?

Once a candidate receives emergency use authorization, the companies and federal health regulators must complete a series of actions before a vaccine is finally released to the public. When it is ready, the vaccine will be distributed to all 50 states within 24 hours, according to Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operations officer of Operation Warp Speed, the government initiative to produce 300 million safe coronavirus vaccines by January 2021. But transporting the vaccines could be a logistical challenge.

Pfizer's vaccine requires ultra-cold storage at almost -94 degrees Fahrenheit and can only be at room temperature for two hours after thawing. It also comes in two doses, spaced 21 days apart. Moderna's vaccine, on the other hand, does not require ultra-cold storage, but it does come in two doses, 28 days apart, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Pfizer's vice president Tanya Alcorn told TODAY that the company has "developed a really innovative proprietary shipper that's proven and tested to be able to maintain the temperatures needed for our vaccine for up to 10 days." She added that Pfizer plans to have a "virtual control tower" to track vaccine distribution and ensure each tray of vials gets to its desired destination safely and on time.

The next hurdle is administering the vaccines, which requires medical professionals to be trained on how to handle and inject them. As Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, explained it: "Vaccines don't save lives — vaccinations do. It's not enough to logistically plan for the vaccine to show up at the hospital."

Moderna and Pfizer are creating a federal stockpile of their vaccine candidates. By the end of December, the government plans to have 40 million doses of the two vaccines available for distribution, pending FDA authorization, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday. Experts told NBC News it is possible for some Americans (likely health care workers and at-risk populations) to receive the vaccine by the end of December.

When will a COVID-19 vaccine be available for the general population?

It's still unclear at this stage exactly when the vaccine will be made available to the general public. An advisory committee within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to make its recommendation about which groups of people should receive the vaccine first. Front-line health care workers and those who are at high risk of serious illness will likely be prioritized in that order. The vaccines will likely be available for the rest of the population in spring or summer 2021, NBC News reported.

Even after you receive the vaccine, public health experts believe at this stage you will still need to wear a mask, according to NBC's Tom Costello. He added that life won't likely won't return to normal for another year.

Will you need to get the COVID-19 vaccine annually?

Another major question looming about life after the vaccine: Will the COVID-19 vaccine become an annual immunization, like the flu shot? It's still too soon to know, Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, who headed up Pfizer's clinical trials at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, told TODAY.

"The only hard evidence ... is that the Moderna vaccine, the earlier phase trials, held up antibody levels as far out as 60 days," he said. "(When) we have the six-month data ... then we would know at least if up to mid-year it holds up."

The six-month data is expected to be released "soon," Ogbuagu said.