Will Pfizer’s Vaccine Be Ready in October? Here’s Why That’s Unlikely.


In media appearances and talks with investors, Pfizer’s chief executive nearly always mentions a word that is so politically perilous, most of his competitors shy away from it: October.

“Right now, our model — our best case — predicts that we will have an answer by the end of October,” the chief executive, Dr. Albert Bourla, told the “Today” show earlier this month. In other interviews, he has said he expected a “conclusive readout” by then, with an application for emergency authorization that could be filed “immediately.”

Dr. Bourla’s statements have put his company squarely in the sights of President Trump, who has made no secret of his desire for positive vaccine news to boost his chances on Election Day, Nov. 3. “We’re going to have a vaccine very soon. Maybe even before a very special date,” Mr. Trump said recently.

And yet by all other accounts, the idea that it will be ready in October is far-fetched. Even if the vaccine shows promising signs in clinical trials — still a big if — the company will not have collected enough data by then to say with any statistical confidence that it is safe and effective.

Pfizer will not be anywhere near completion of its clinical trial by the end of October, according to a company spokeswoman. When Dr. Bourla referred to a “conclusive readout” next month, she said, he meant that it’s possible the outside board of experts monitoring the trial would have by that date found promising signs that the vaccine works.

Pfizer’s trial blueprints allow the panel to look at the data after just 32 volunteers have become ill with Covid-19. Even if most of those cases were in the placebo group, regulators at the Food and Drug Administration would likely need data from more volunteers before making a decision on authorization, according to people familiar with the government’s vaccine approval process.

The F.D.A. has also told vaccine makers that they will need to track at least half of the patients’ safety data for two months before the agency will grant emergency access. That would push the earliest possible date into at least November.

In a statement, Pfizer said that it would continue to collect data on trial volunteers’ health for two years, and that it planned to submit two months of safety data to the agency “to help inform F.D.A.’s ultimate determination of authorization or approval.”

In public interviews, government health officials have refuted the October date. Both Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort that has awarded billions of dollars to vaccine makers, and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, have said October was unlikely.

Pfizer’s leading competitors in the vaccine race, Moderna and AstraZeneca, have been more vague about timing, saying they expect something before the end of the year. In a recent interview, Moderna’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, said: “October is possible, because very few things in life are impossible.” The better word, he said, is “unlikely.”

“They will not get approved before the election,” said Ronny Gal, an analyst with the Wall Street firm Bernstein. “The timing just doesn’t work.”

One key to understanding how Pfizer vaulted to first place in the vaccine race is found in its trial blueprints, known as a protocol.

Even though Moderna and Pfizer began their trials on the same day, Pfizer’s is “built for speed,” as one Wall Street firm, SVB Leerink, described it.

Participants in Pfizer’s trial are given two doses of a vaccine 21 days apart, whereas those in Moderna’s wait 28 days in between. Pfizer begins looking for sick volunteers seven days after the second dose, whereas Moderna does so at 14 days. And Pfizer’s plan allows an outside review panel to look at early data after just 32 volunteers have become ill with Covid-19. Moderna’s plan doesn’t allow for a first peek until 53 cases.

Some experts have speculated that Pfizer’s volunteers happen to be in places where the virus is spreading quickly, making it more likely that they would have been exposed to the virus and put the vaccine to the test. While Moderna’s trial is being conducted only in the United States, Pfizer’s is international, with locations set up or planned in the United States, Brazil, Turkey and Argentina.

In Argentina, which has seen a surge of coronavirus infections since August, 33,000 volunteers quickly signed up for about 4,500 slots, said Dr. Fernando Polack, the head researcher of the Pfizer study that is being carried out at the Hospital Military Central in Buenos Aires.

“We have a lot of years of experience in these kinds of trials, and we’ve never seen these numbers before,” Dr. Polack said in an interview. He declined to comment on whether he was aware of any Covid-19 cases among volunteers.

Across all of its trial sites, Pfizer said, 24,000 volunteers have received the second dose of the vaccine, more than half of the 44,000 that are expected to enroll.

Dr. Bourla, who has spent much of the past month giving interviews to media outlets and appearing on industry panels, has insisted the company’s accelerated timeline had nothing to do with politics. “We have politicians or journalists speaking about efficacy or safety about medicines which, of course, is not appropriate,” Dr. Bourla said at the company’s investor day on Sept. 15. “The scientists should be having these discussions.”

Ultimately, Pfizer’s strategy may be about managing the public’s expectations, said Brandon Barford, a partner at Beacon Policy Advisors, a research firm. Pfizer could now explain any delay past October by “saying, ‘We’re being extra cautious.’ And you get kudos for it.”

But if the opposite occurs, and Pfizer is seen to be pushing a vaccine before it is ready, the “potential fallout is enormous,” said Dr. Ranney, of Brown University. “We cannot afford to have a vaccine released for Covid-19 that is either unsafe or ineffective.”

Sharon LaFraniere, Daniel Politi, Noah Weiland and Katherine J. Wu contributed reporting.



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