The world cheered this week after pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech announced early findings from their phase three trial for a frontrunner COVID-19 vaccine. On November 9, the companies issued a news release claiming their vaccine candidate effectively prevented infection with the coronavirus—welcome news after soaring global cases have prompted new shutdowns and warnings of intensive care units filled to capacity.
But even more stunning was the extent the vaccine exceeded industry expectations. According to their press release, data reviewed by an independent panel of experts show the vaccine to be 90-percent effective, meaning nine out of 10 recipients experienced some sort of benefit—far surpassing the 50-percent benchmark set by health overseers such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization.
The news was unprecedented because it appears to be a vindication of the mRNA technologythat so far has only been proven in animal models. But it was also surprising because the companies took the unusual step of releasing some of the results—what they called an “interim report”—before the rest of the data was available.
“As a scientist, you’d want to see actual data from a clinical trial to really know what the actual interpretation of the results are,” says Aliasger K. Salem, chair of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Iowa.
Several experts say they’re concerned that the public is getting an incomplete picture about the vaccine’s success that doesn’t reveal critical information, such as which demographic groups it protected...