Experts hope a COVID-19 vaccine will be available soon—but not every member of your family will be first to get it. Learn more about the projected timeline for receiving a coronavirus vaccination.

By Nicole Harris
November 20, 2020
Credit: Getty Images

As COVID-19 cases rise, it seems like the entire country is holding its breath, waiting for the latest results in vaccine clinical trials. “We don’t know the whole story yet, and we’re terribly impatient to know,” says Christine Turley, M.D., Pediatrics Specialist and vice chair of research at Atrium Health Levine Children’s. 

Once experts realized the widespread severity of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, they rushed to develop an effective vaccine. Several candidates have reached phase 3 trials—meaning they’ve been given to hundreds of thousands of volunteers, and they’re being strictly evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Two specific vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, are the current frontrunners, and they’ve both shown success rates of about 95 percent.

Parents can breathe a small sigh of relief knowing that an effective vaccine will likely reach the market in 2021, but chances are, your children won’t be first in line to receive it. You can thank the strict testing and research protocols implemented by the FDA. Keep reading to learn about the predicted timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine, who will likely get it first, and when it will be available to the general public.

The Estimated Timeline for a COVID-19 Vaccine

To receive FDA approval, vaccine candidates must go through a strict testing process. “The FDA is requiring a minimum of two months of safety data, inclusion of all groups (including high-risk individuals), and a minimum of 30,000 participants” in clinical trials, says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network and co-investigator on the vaccine trials. “[The FDA] has also assembled an independent board of scientists to review the vaccine data.” Among other things, the scientists will study any side effects of the vaccine, the dosage, and the frequency. 

If all goes well, experts hope that a vaccine candidate will receive “emergency use authorization” by Christmas. In fact, one candidate (Pfizer) is already planning to apply for emergency use authorization. This isn’t the same as traditional FDA approval, explains Dr. Parikh, since it means that the vaccine can be used only for certain high-risk individuals.

“[The vaccine] will still be considered experimental, and further studies will be required to be ongoing,” says Dr. Parikh. “A full FDA final approval will be pending down the line and go through usual rigors and requirements.” Only after this full FDA approval will the vaccine be available to the general public.

Who Will Receive the COVID-19 Vaccine First?

Once the FDA approves a vaccine for emergency use authorization, it will only be given to high-risk individuals. Healthcare workers are first priority. “They carry so much extra risk by virtue of their daily exposure,” says Dr. Turley. Others who might qualify include the elderly, those with underlying health conditions (like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes), high-risk ethnic groups, and those from certain zip codes, says Dr. Parikh.

It’s essentially a game of weighing pros and cons. Experts must determine that the benefits of receiving the vaccine outweigh the potential risks, based on available safety data.There are limited doses of the vaccine, so we need to prioritize those with highest risk of severe COVID-19 complications,” explains Dr. Parikh. 

When Will My Family Receive a COVID-19 Vaccine?

There’s no clear answer, because the FDA will compile several months of safety data after granting emergency use authorization to a vaccine candidate, says Dr. Turley. Experts want to ensure the vaccine’s safety before releasing it to the public. Dr. Turley and Dr. Parikh are both hopeful that a coronavirus vaccine will be approved for community use by the middle of 2021. But they aren’t sure who, exactly, will be able to receive it then.

As of now, the clinical trials have only included healthy adults. Children are noticeably missing—although Pfizer recently started testing kids as young as 12 years old, and other vaccine candidates will likely follow suit. Why have children been excluded? It’s partly for ethical reasons because kids can’t fully comprehend and consent to the trials. Also, children have different bodies and immune systems than adults, so experts want to understand safety risks thoroughly before undergoing pediatric testing.

High-risk individuals, who have a greater likelihood of negative consequences, have also been excluded from the trials so far. The same goes for pregnant women. “They're typically postponed in trials because of unknown risks to the fetus and mother, since pregnancy itself is an immunocompromised state,” says Dr. Turley

It’s possible that the vaccine will be approved for everyone—including children and pregnant women—in  the middle of 2021. But it’s also possible that the FDA will conduct more testing first, which might delay availability to certain groups. We won’t know for sure until more data is released in the coming months.

Is the Vaccine Safe for My Family?

Thanks to the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine, many people are understandably worried. But Dr. Turley stresses that all safety procedures have been properly followed in the clinical trials, and only the administrative components have been sped up. “The FDA worked closely with vaccine experts to study a vaccine design for COVID-19,” she says. “Trial design usually takes a long time, which contributes to a long time for vaccine approval, but this was all discussed before we even had a candidate.” 

Dr. Parikh also stresses that you shouldn’t fear vaccines with FDA approval. “When a vaccine is approved, and if you are in a high-risk group such as a healthcare worker, or you have a high-risk medical condition, discuss with your physician if the vaccine is appropriate for you,” she says. “Do not be fearful of the vaccine if you are recommended to get it, as risk of infection may outweigh any risks from the vaccine.” Widespread vaccination will help stop COVID-19 in its tracks, letting everyone get back to life as we knew it. 


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