The FDA approved a COVID-19 vaccine – here’s what higher education leaders need to know


The FDA approved a COVID-19 vaccine – here’s what higher education leaders need to know

Published December 12, 2020

On December 11th, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized emergency use of a vaccine to prevent the coronavirus strand behind COVID-19. This vaccine, developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, is the first one to have received full approval from the US regulatory body, and was approved by health authorities in the United Kingdom and Canada over the week prior. While new details continue to come out, the first doses of this vaccine are planned for distribution in the US on December 14th.

Below, we’ll walk through how we got to this achievement—and what the implications will be for college, universities, and schools.

Brief summary of vaccine development

The work to create a vaccine began in January 2020 with the analysis of the genetic structure of the COVID-19 coronavirus strand. Since then, according to the New York Times, at least 58 vaccine candidates have entered clinical trials, being tested for safety, dosage, and efficacy. While some vaccines were given limited approval in China and Russia as early as September 15th, these vaccines had not completed the full trials necessary to be considered safe by most health experts.


candidates remain in final phase 3 testing

Pfizer’s candidate is considered the first vaccine to have met the threshold for safe distribution by a trusted regulatory body. One additional candidate (from biotech company Moderna) has also released initial safety data, and at least another 13 candidates remain in final phase 3 testing.

What happens next

With approval, efforts will now turn to the rapid production and distribution of the vaccine. By means of Operation Warp Speed, a joint effort between the US Federal Government and private sector partners, much of the production and distribution procedures and infrastructure has already begun to be put in place. On November 12th, the US Health and Human Services (HHS) announced plans to partner with about 60% of all pharmacies in the United States to deploy the vaccine. Local jurisdictions have also been encouraged to make their own plans to market and distribute the vaccine for their communities. The incoming Biden administration has noted its intention to make the vaccine free to all Americans. Further communication from the FDA, Biden administration transition officials, and Pfizer is expected over the coming weeks.

However, health experts still encourage all institutions to enforce social distancing and masking policies during the vaccine distribution and thereafter to help reduce overall infections and protect individuals who cannot receive the vaccine for medical or other reasons.

Implications for colleges and universities

Given this news, higher education leaders must start planning now to support vaccine distribution in three key areas: coordination, data and policy, and education.


Just as college and university campuses often served as major testing partners during the pandemic, the CDC recommends local officials partner with “schools and institutions of higher learning” when developing their plans for vaccine distribution. Education leaders should reach out to their public health and community partners now to help play an active role in planning for vaccine distribution. Planning teams should also begin identifying the requisite infrastructure (e.g., gyms, dining halls, and parking lots) and logistical resources needed if the campus is used as a distribution site.

Data and policy

As the vaccine begins to be distributed, colleges and universities must ensure they have accurate data and transparent policies in place to ensure campus remains as safe as possible. Education leaders should review current vaccination requirements and exemption policies with their public health partners and state officials to determine if modifications need to be made given the limited availability and distribution timeline of the vaccine. The CDC currently recommends colleges and university plan on vaccinating students at enrollment if they have not yet received the treatment. Planning teams should also begin developing a system to track the vaccination status of students and staff on campus, both to track distribution progress (as multiple doses and boosters may be required over time) as well as to identify at-risk populations not yet protected by the vaccine.


Education leaders should also begin planning communication campaigns to help inform campus constituents about the vaccine. This communication should provide accurate information about the vaccine and its distribution and dispel myths surrounding the vaccine’s creation and effects. Given the limited supply of the vaccine and its estimated 5% ineffectiveness, university leaders should also reiterate the necessity for masking, social distancing, and other safety measures throughout the 2021 calendar year. Colleges and university should plan to communicate these messages across multiple channels and look to partner with student newspapers and social media influencers to help share the information with as wide an audience as possible.

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