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Despite promising vaccine results, epidemiologist warns coming months will be ‘traumatizingly unpleasant’

More hopeful news on the COVID-19 vaccine front, as the world got word Monday that a second vaccine could be authorized for emergency use before the holidays.

Moderna has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) to allow emergency use of its shot, and is seeking a similar green light from European regulators, after the biotech giant received promising new study results over the weekend.

But health experts are still warning of a grim pandemic winter ahead, as the second wave surges.

“I just need to be really blunt that I think January and February are going to be traumatizingly unpleasant,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

The latest tests found the Moderna shot was more than 94 per cent effective, and a full 100 per cent effective in preventing severe cases of the virus. Of the volunteers who became infected in trials, 185 received a placebo, while 11 got two doses of the real vaccine. No one in the vaccinated group developed a severe case.

Moderna’s chief drugmaker told the Associated Press the results reduced him to tears.

They are, however, still preliminary. “Does the vaccine prevent transmission? Does it prevent disease or does it just prevent symptomatic disease?” said Furness. “But this is fantastic news, no question.”

The F.D.A. will meet in December to review emergency use applications from both Moderna and Pfizer, which says data suggests its vaccine candidate is 95 per cent effective. If everything goes as planned, Americans could be just weeks away from receiving the first vaccinations.

While Canadians will have to wait longer, “any vaccine distribution and deployment anywhere in the world makes us safer because COVID continues to arrive on airplanes every day,” Furness said.

Moderna is one of several drug companies that have started giving data – as it becomes available – to Health Canada, which has a different approval process than the U.S. and Europe.

“Health Canada has gotten some bad press for being slow and not being innovative…There’s some things that I think we can be quite critical about,” Furness said. But he believes when it comes to vaccines, the extra layers of review are a good thing.

“I’m not content just to listen to the F.D.A., which may be influenced by political considerations in the U.S.,” he said. “If we have to wait a little bit longer to make sure they’re safe, I think that’s actually worth it.”

Furness expects people in this country will start getting inoculated in early 2021, with the majority of the general population rolling up their sleeves by next fall.

“I’d like to think that by the time we’re up against next year’s flu season, that we’ll go back to worrying about flu instead of COVID, that’s my hope.”