We weren’t supposed to have a vaccine by now. Less than a year ago, I wrote a story with the headline, “It Will Probably Take Longer Than 12 to 18 Months to Get a Vaccine.” This wasn’t an off-the-cuff take, or a hunch—it was based on interviews with experts and a whole lot of reading. I was trying to provide a measured guide to how experts were thinking about the timeline for inoculations, beyond predictions that kept giving us whiplash (and, I worried, false hope). Those predictions were splashy: In March of 2020, Anthony Fauci was saying that it would “take at least a year to a year in a half to have a vaccine we can use”; soon after, he went on the Today show estimating that January of the following year would be “doable if things fall in the right place.” Headlines repeating the optimism abounded.
No one I spoke to for my Debbie Downer story disputed that this timeline was possible; they just emphasized that it would shatter records if it happened. Vaccines historically have taken at least a few years to develop, so a January timeline involved banking on a kind of shot that had never before made it to market (the mRNA vaccine). An analyst at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told me it was important to pay attention to the caveat in Fauci’s optimistic timeline: “Things rarely go perfectly.” After watching what had happened with the virus in just those few disastrous months, “thing rarely go perfectly” made perfect sense.
Yet, as I type this, I have Pfizer mRNA in my body, bopping around to my cells. It feels like everyone I know has spent some chunk of the past week refreshing a page to find an appointment and then happily posting a vaccine selfie, which I think we have decided to call “vaxxies.” We are tsk tsking vaccine chasers and line skippers and trading tales of side effects. We are being urged to take whichever vaccine is easiest to acquire. Meaning we have multiple vaccines, inside of a year—even if you start the clock at the first reports of “pneumonia with an unknown cause” in late 2019.
And the good news about these vaccines just keeps coming. The vaccines are very, very effective at preventing severe illness, and hospitalizations, a finding from the original clinical trials that continues to hold up as more data are collected and new variants evolve. They are effective against asymptomatic infections, too, meaning that a vaccinated person isn’t likely to quietly spread the virus around. There are inoculations for kids on the way. (Yes, “the vaccines” are not the same, but they are all good enough—amazing, really!—that I feel fine talking about them as a group for these purposes.) Optimism, for once, seems to be winning. Or maybe it’s also that years and years of research boosted by a massive influx of money—thanks, Operation Warp Speed—paid off. In any case, my headline from May of last year … it was wrong, and by extension, I was wrong! It can be very good to be wrong. Mea culpa—and hooray, let’s plan a wild summer.
And yet, as I look back at the kinds of caution experts urged in that piece, I see a lot that still applies. Yes, multiple vaccines passed the clinical trials with excellent data. Among three of them, there have been no concerns beyond some chills and fatigue. (Scientists are still looking into what’s going on with blood clots that may in very rare cases be caused by AstraZeneca’s vaccine—an issue that underscores how lucky we are to have multiple vaccines.) In the United States, we may have plenty of doses of the vaccine, between those that are currently available and those that the administration promises will be here soon. But having enough doses of excellent vaccines isn’t the same as everyone having a shot. It’s still difficult to get one if you don’t have good internet access, or the ability to take off from work whenever and wherever you happen to be able to get an appointment. When we say we’ve “gotten” a vaccine in record time, it’s worth asking “for whom.” With 20 percent of adults fully vaccinated in the United States, we’re far, far ahead of much of the world. As we were jubilating over vaccinated elderly and health care workers, a December news report in the British Medical Journal cautioned that “many poor countries will see almost no vaccine” in 2021, which is bad news for a swift end to the pandemic.
Even here in the U.S., we’re getting ahead of our skis. Along with the vaccine rollout, some states have already been nixing restrictions, and the un- or semi-vaccinated among us are getting a little laxer with our safety calculations. We have the vaccines. We’re still working on using them.