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Is Utah ready for when a coronavirus vaccine is available?

FILE - In this March 16, 2020, file photo, a subject receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine by Moderna for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. According to results released on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, early-stage testing showed the first COVID-19 vaccine tested in the U.S. revved up people’s immune systems the way scientists had hoped. The vaccine is made by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — Operation Warp Speed is the federal government’s code name for developing a vaccine for coronavirus. 

The process of developing a vaccine, which normally takes five to seven years for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the FDA to roll out, is now being pushed to nine to twelve month timeline.  And could be ready in limited release by October, according to Rich Lakin, immunization program manager for the Utah Department of Health.

“There are at least two companies in Phase 3 of vaccine trials,” Lakin stated. 

Phase three of a vaccine trial means at least 20,000 people are injected and then tested for side-effects. The trials will also determine if the vaccine is effective and for how long.

Preparing for the coronavirus vaccine in Utah 

Lakin said a panel is being formed in order to be prepared to distribute the coronavirus vaccine once it becomes available in Utah.

“Seventeen people will sit on a ‘prioritization group’ to decide who will be first in line for the vaccine,” Lakin said.  “The panel will consist of doctors and health officials, including myself and [Utah Department of Health Epidemiologist] Dr. Angela Dunn.” 

The CDC will issue guidelines for which people should receive a coronavirus vaccine first.  But each state has the flexibility to re-arrange those guidelines based on which sector of the population is a ‘hot spot,’ Lakin said.

Some states may need their health care workers vaccinated first, for example, but Lakin said others may prioritize residents over 65 as most in need. 

Why prioritize? It takes time to produce enough vaccine

States will need to prioritize coronavirus vaccine doses, because it will take time to produce enough vaccine for everyone.

“That’s what happened when the H1N1 vaccine became available,” Larkin continued. “We had to decide which areas of the population were most in need.”

But Lakin advises H1N1, a type of flu, is a completely different disease from coronavirus.  He said it’s more closely related to the SARS virus, which never developed a vaccine.

“The reason,” Lakin said, “is because coronavirus is much more highly contagious than SARS.” 

On the positive side, he notes, the COVID-19 death rate is lower than that of SARS.

“While the first vaccines may be ready in October, more will most likely be available by January,” stated Lakin.