Moderna says its COVID-19 vaccine is nearly 95% effective

The news Monday the biotech Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine had delivered beyond expectations, left Atlanta vaccine researchers and trial participants relieved and happy.

Norman Helme, 65, of Decatur, Georgia, has been playing it safe since he became one of the first 75 Americans to test the vaccine back in April of 2020.

He received the active vaccine as part of a phase 1 safety trial.

"You probably noticed my hair is a little longer," Helme says, laughing. "I haven't had a haircut since March."

Monday morning, just before a scheduled follow-up appointment at the Emory Vaccine Center, Helme read the news an independent safety data monitoring board had determined the Moderna vaccine was almost 95% effective in preventing volunteers from contracting the novel coronavirus, based on the early study data.

"That's just a home run," Helme says.  "So, for me, that shows that there is a real light at the end of this tunnel, somewhere down the road. There is a lot of work to still be done, but, I think, really, it's so promising."

Across metro Atlanta at Piedmont Newnan Hospital, Dr. David Copelan, the director of the hospital's pharmacy, is another Moderna COVE Study volunteer, this time in the Piedmont Healthcare arm of the trial. 

"It was a great feeling to know that it was that effective," Copelan says.

Unlike Helme, Copelan does not know if he received the test vaccine or a placebo.

"But, just, knowing that I participated in moving this along, it's a good feeling," he says.

The FDA had indicated earlier a COVID-19 vaccine would have to be at least 50% effective to be approved.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which were made using a similar mRNA technology, both delivered beyond anyone's expectations.

Last Monday, Pfizer announced its test vaccine was just over 90% effective, based on early data.

Both vaccines are still in stage three clinical trains.

For Emory researchers, who have been testing the Moderna vaccine almost around the clock, the news of the initial success brought relief, excitement, and hope says co-primary investigator Dr. Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of medicine at the Emory School of Medicine.

"Really, our teams have been working incredibly hard to make this happen, in the setting of a global pandemic," Kelley says.  "So, this is really, really sweet, and it's sweet for science overall."

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The Emory researchers credited more than 700 local volunteers, they say helped them screen a vaccine usually takes years to develop and test in a matter of months.

"This is astonishing speed for a vaccine," Dr. Nadine Rouphael, the co-primary investigator of the Emory trial, says. "Not only is it fast, we know it's working, in this early look at the data, as far as safety and efficacy."

David Copelan and Norman Helme say they are grateful to be involved in the vaccine research.

"It was more a sense of satisfaction, that I helped, I participated," Copelan says.

Helme, who works in the Emory University IT Department, this was a way to give back to the pandemic effort.

"I'm not a first responder," he says.  "There have been so many people who have been doing this amazing work to address this. To have a small part of that, it's really been a true honor."