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First vaccines, then chaos: What this medical journalist sees next

CNET's Now What explores how the COVID-19 vaccines may really roll out.

Now playing: Watch this: Will a COVID-19 vaccine be a triumph of science or soul-searching?

It's easy to see light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel when we hear about remarkably efficacious vaccine candidates, but that may be one of the easier stages to cover on the complicated road to recovery. Now what?

"Nobody's ever made a vaccine for this kind of virus before," says Carl Zimmer, noted science journalist who recently wrote a column for the New York Times that warned of "first a vaccine approval, then 'chaos and confusion.'"

He notes that the time from initial work to public release of the first vaccines could be as short as 18 months, shattering all previous records for development time -- and potentially giving doubters grist for the fear, uncertainty and doubt mill.

Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 bioreactor lab

An array of bioreactors used by Pfizer and BioNTech to develop their 90% effective COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

Pfizer BioNTech

"Social media is going to be a really big issue ... and not just from anti-vaccine denialists. Russia has already been doing vaccine disinformation for the last couple of years -- just imagine what they're going to be doing next spring."

Encouraging headlines reporting over 90% effectiveness rates in stage 3 trials of vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have started to alter the course of dread and driven the US stock market to record highs. But Zimmer says some of the speed behind those breakthroughs was achieved by skipping a lengthy "master protocol" trial that would have put all the vaccine candidates into a "megatrial" against each other that would surface nuances in each one's best use. 

"There's no one company that's going to be able to vaccinate the entire US as fast as we want," says Zimmer. "If we had data from a master protocol trial, we'd have much more sound footing" for deciding which company's vaccine is best for kids, the elderly or other populations.

Zimmer says even vaccines that come in with lower effectiveness can have high value, as long as they're adopted by a high percentage of the population.  

Carl Zimmer shared many more crucial insights into the future of COVID-19 vaccines with CNET's Brian Cooley. You can hear them all in the video above. 


Now What is a video interview series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers that covers trends impacting businesses and consumers amid the "new normal." There will always be change in our world, and we'll be here to discuss how to navigate it all.   

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.