For much of the coronavirus pandemic, people have been fixated on the prospect of a COVID vaccine that might contain the outbreak and finally bring about a return to normalcy. And with many health experts speculating that a vaccine could arrive by the end of the year, it's hard not to feel optimistic about things getting better in the near future. At a Senate hearing on Sept. 16, however, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, offered a somewhat less rosy prediction: It could take up to nine months for the American public to get vaccinated.
"I think we have to assume that if we had a vaccine, say, released today, that it's going to take us probably in the order of nine months, six to nine months to get the American public vaccinated," Redfield told a Senate committee. "In order to have enough of us immunized so we have immunity, I think it's going to take us six to nine months."
Redfield is not the first expert to caution that vaccine production and distribution could take longer than many of us might like to believe. Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, recently said it would take four or five years for everyone to get vaccinated globally.
Vaccinating Americans is, of course, a narrower prospect, but Redfield's prediction falls in line with what others have warned. As an August Washington Post article put it, "Deploying the vaccine to people in the United States and around the world will test and strain distribution networks, the supply chain, public trust and global cooperation."
The vaccine timeline the CDC director gave wasn't the only deflating reality check he offered. Redfield also said that face masks may offer more protection than a COVID vaccine, echoing the concerns health experts have shared about how effective the first vaccine will actually be. While scientists are aiming for a vaccine that's at least 75 percent effective, the Food and Drug Administration will approve one that is only 50 percent effective.
Beyond that, there are questions surrounding how many people will be willing to get the vaccine. While Redfield spoke about the need to get enough Americans vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, that may be impossible with a vaccine that's only 50 percent effective, and a third of Americans refusing to get vaccinated, as some recent polls suggest.
At this point, health officials and infectious disease experts can only offer predictions and not a concrete timeline for the future of the pandemic. There's no question that the development of a vaccine would change the course of the outbreak in the U.S.—but anyone imaging an imminent return to normal life may have to temper their expectations. And for more insight from the CDC, 40 Percent of COVID Patients Went Here Before Getting Sick, CDC Says.