Ninety-five percent? That’s a preliminary number from Moderna, whose COVID-19 Phase Three vaccine trial remains in progress. However, this report raises the potential for getting two vaccines with 90%-plus effectiveness to some Americans just in time to be a much-anticipated Christmas present:

Biotechnology firm Moderna announced Monday that a preliminary analysis shows its experimental coronavirus vaccine is nearly 95 percent effective at preventing illness, including severe cases — a striking initial result that leaves the United States with the prospect that two coronavirus vaccines could be available on a limited basis by the end of the year.

The news comes a week after pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech lifted the stock market and people’s hopes with the news that their coronavirus vaccine was more than 90 percent effective. …

Moderna’s vaccine, co-developed with Fauci’s institute, is being tested in 30,000 people. Half received two doses of the vaccine, and half received a placebo. To test how well the vaccine works, physicians closely monitored cases of covid-19 to see whether they predominantly occurred in people who received the placebo group.

Of the 95 cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, 90 were in the group that received the placebo. There were 11 severe cases reported — all in people who received the placebo. With cases of covid-19 confined almost exclusively to trial participants receiving a placebo, that sends a strong signal that the vaccine is effective at thwarting the virus.

The data have not yet been published or peer reviewed, and the overall effectiveness of the vaccine may change as the study continues. But Fauci said the data on severe cases was “quite impressive” and effectively answers a question that has lingered: whether a vaccine measured by its success in preventing any case of covid-19 can prevent the most urgent cases, too.

Keep in mind the term preliminary. Generally speaking, COVID-19 cases take a couple of weeks to develop at the outside, so it’s possible that there just hasn’t been enough time for cases to develop in either the target or control groups. Also, 95 cases is a very small sample against which to determine the effectiveness of a vaccine. It’s somewhat akin to doing a political poll of California with a sample of 150 adults. Even if this turns out to be accurate, it sounds as though we may still be a few weeks away from the finish line for Moderna’s study.

This might still vault Moderna ahead of Pfizer, whose vaccine candidate has a 90% effectiveness rate but which requires ultra-cold storage. The infrastructure for distribution of the Moderna vaccine will be much simpler, which might make it faster to come to market:

Moderna’s interim analysis was based on 95 infections among trial participants who received either a placebo or the vaccine. Of those, only five infections occurred in those who received the vaccine, which is administered in two shots 28 days apart.

A key advantage of Moderna’s vaccine is that it does not need ultra-cold storage like Pfizer’s, making it easier to distribute. Moderna expects it to be stable at standard refrigerator temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (36 to 48°F) for 30 days and it can be stored for up to 6 months at -20 degrees Celsius.

Pfizer’s vaccine must be shipped and stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, the sort of temperature typical of an Antarctic winter. At standard refrigerator temperatures, it can be stored for up to five days.

The cold storage requirements for Pfizer’s vaccine will require new distribution infrastructure, whereas Moderna’s vaccine will work with existing refrigerated shipping and storage. The Trump administration is likely to take a both-and approach here and spend the money for rapidly building the kind of refrigeration required for the Pfizer vaccine, since it has been shown to be highly effective and we need as many doses of effective vaccines as we can get.

That will take action from Congress, however, and the gridlock around the Phase 4 bill might end up tilting the playing field to Moderna. The White House can’t appropriate money on its own, and right now the House and Senate are hung up on how to spend aid money. Nancy Pelosi wants it bloc-granted to the states, while Mitch McConnell wants to spend far less and only on targeted programs. A cold-storage distribution system will cost billions, but perhaps both sides could pass that separately without surrendering any leverage on other matters.

This does raise the stakes on Pelosi and McConnell, however. If Pfizer’s vaccine is approved but unable to ship because of Beltway infighting, voters will take it out on both of them at the earliest possible opportunity. That could be the runoff elections in Georgia. Both sides had better prepare for that possibility by proposing standalone spending for that infrastructure, or getting to a comprehensive deal ASAP.

If the FDA grants emergency use authorization, the US will have 100 million doses of the Moderna vaccine to use within weeks. Pfizer is already locked and loaded, but perhaps missing a useful distribution channel. Either way, we may get as many as 20 million Americans vaccinated by the end of the year:

Roughly 20 million people could be vaccinated against the coronavirus in December, the head of the Trump administration’s vaccine and drug accelerator said Friday.

Americans can expect that about 25 to 30 million people could be vaccinated each month afterward, said Moncef Slaoui, co-lead of Operation Warp Speed, during a Rose Garden event with President Donald Trump and other top health officials.

That timeline depends on the Food and Drug Administration authorizing the emergency use of one or more vaccines — which could happen in a matter of weeks, Slaoui noted.

That would be a fine Christmas present indeed. We should marvel at the ability of the free market to shatter old records in coming up with any kind of a vaccine against a novel coronavirus in less than a year, let alone two whose effectiveness may exceed 90%. Amazing.