Home Education Potholes persist in the road to a Covid vaccine

Potholes persist in the road to a Covid vaccine

When Covid-19 first began to be identified in the U.S. in March, scientists and medical professionals had almost no firsthand knowledge of the virus. Eight months later, successful clinical trials of the first vaccines to mitigate the virus’ spread have been announced.

Gina Kolata. Courtesy Fairfield University.

“It’s amazing to me that in such an incredibly short time, we actually have possibly the first effective vaccine against this deadly virus,” observed Gina Kolata, science and medicine reporter at The New York Times during the recent virtual presentation “Covid-19 Vaccination: How and When Will the U.S. Get It? A Discussion of the State of the Coronavirus Vaccination.” It was sponsored by Fairfield University’s Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts and Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies.

Kolata, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, acknowledged that while the speed of the vaccine development has been historic, there has also been an unprecedented level of skepticism and agitation over the efficacy of the development.

“People always say: ‘Well, why should I take it when I don’t even trust this thing?’” she said. “In fact, I remember in the vice presidential debates when that question was asked of Kamala Harris and she said, ‘If Donald Trump said take it, I wouldn’t take it. But if the Food and Drug Administration and its experts said take it, I would take it.’ Which is obviously a political answer.”

Kolata noted that the public health experts “have to do a real public relations campaign” to convince people on the safety of vaccines. Complicating matters however is the fragmented nature of the vaccine development effort — Kolata highlighted there were “well over 100 vaccines being developed” around the world and quality control efforts vary among countries.

Within the U.S., Kolata explained, vaccine makers “have to follow the people in the trial for two months to see whether they have any strange side effects.” A few news leaks on these tests highlighted early problems, but these were quickly explained: One person who became ill during a test trial was actually being given a placebo rather than the vaccine, while another person who fell ill was experiencing an early sign of multiple sclerosis that was not caused by the virus.

Although vaccine research efforts by the teaming of Pfizer and BioNTech and by Moderna have resulted in announcements that their respective vaccine tests are over 90% effective in clinical trials, Kolata advised that any hope of seeing immediate distribution of vaccines would be delayed by federal government protocols.

“The FDA has something called scientific advisory boards, and these are outside groups of experts who pore over the data,” she said. “And they can take quite a while to do this. Because it’s on them to say, ‘We are satisfied that this vaccine has been sufficiently studied and tested. If they advise the FDA that this vaccine looks good, then the FDA can approve it or give it emergency approval.”

Kolata pointed to another federal agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has its own committee to determine distribution of the vaccine. She theorized that certain groups could be prioritized over others for initial vaccination efforts.

“The first group would be health care workers and first responders, which you might think are doctors and nurses on the frontlines,” she said. “But this also includes many more people who are, for example, aides in nursing homes or even part of the cleaning staff in a nursing home. You end up with millions of people.”

Kolata raised the possibility of using the Social Vulnerability Index created by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine as a potential guide for vaccination priority. This index was developed for hurricane relief efforts, with detailed demographics that include income levels and race. But that adds a new problem to the mix.

“Race might be the sticking point because you’re not allowed to allocate something like vaccines according to race,” she said. “Layered on top is the fact that a lot of people in these hard-hit areas say, ‘We don’t want to be guinea pigs, we remember that the legacy of Tuskegee and other situations where people who were black or minorities were experimented on — we’re not going to be the guinea pigs for you.’”

And even if there were no problems in determining who gets vaccinated first, Kolata noted the process of distributing vaccines is not without challenges.

“There are concerns about how you’re going to ship it out to everybody because it’s got to be kept at the same temperature as the South Pole on a cold winter day — and that’s not easy,” she said. “If you’re a hospital you’ve got to keep it ultra-cold before you inject somebody with it. The issues are endless.”

Despite the obstacles in the path for a smooth and speedy vaccine distribution, Kolata stressed that she was cautiously positive the process would succeed.

“We’ve come an incredibly long way incredibly quickly,” she said. “The questions that remain are impossibly difficult, but it’s also a time of kind of new faith — a new optimism for people who want to be optimistic and hope this can’t go on forever. How are we going to get out of it? We have a number of methods — maybe — and we have some hope that we that something is going to work.”

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Phil Hall's writing for Westfair Communications has earned multiple awards from the Connecticut Press Club and the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists. He is a former United Nations-based reporter for Fairchild Broadcast News and the author of 11 books (including the upcoming "100 Years of Wall Street Crooks," published by Bicep Books). He is also the host of the SoundCloud podcast "The Online Movie Show," host of the WAPJ-FM talk show "Nutmeg Chatter" and a writer with credits in The New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired, The Hill's Congress Blog, Profit Confidential, The MReport and StockNews.com. Outside of journalism, he is also a horror movie actor - usually playing the creepy villain who gets badly killed at the end of each film.


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