I am a huge fan of vaccines, as I am also a huge fan of not contracting things like polio or measles. Likewise, I am a huge fan of researchers finding a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus so that COVID-19 can become a notation in history instead of an ongoing plague.
But I’m not interested in rushing that process.
Rushing to a vaccine could be a really bad idea, both from the standpoint of whether it will truly be the best one for the job and also from the standpoint of whether it will be safe.
While the anti-vaccination community is generally way off base when they declare vaccines an unsafe menace, there is some history of bad vaccines. And I don’t mean just going all the way back to 1955 for the Cutter Incident, where a polio vaccine ended up containing live polio virus. I don’t even mean the 1960s, which brought a measles vaccine that caused some children exposed to the measles virus to develop atypical measles and also a respiratory syncytial virus vaccine that caused children to develop an enhanced form of the disease.
No, we really only have to go back as far as 2017 in the Philippines, where Sanofi Pasteur halted a school-based Dengue fever vaccination program after reports of complications and several deaths linked to the product Dengvaxia. It turned out that the vaccine posed a risk to people without prior infection from one of the disease’s four types, actually increasing the risk that the child would contract a more severe form of the disease.
Again, these are all aberrations—vaccines save countless more lives than they harm or put at risk. In fact, it’s not at all clear that Sanofi Pasteur, for example, could have predicted the adverse effects of its vaccine. Still, that’s why we don’t rush, even in the face of a pandemic.
It is heartening to see so much effort shift to COVID-19 efforts so fast. But the rush to research shouldn’t mean cutting corners on safety.
Already, President Donald Trump—when asked recently about coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics—said, “I think you're going to have a big surprise, a beautiful surprise, sooner than anybody would think,” and that has folks like those at Patients Over Pharma worried the government might rush testing and approval efforts and raise the risk of a useless or dangerous vaccine. And on the other end of the political spectrum, Public Citizen—a group that typically criticizes the FDA for being too quick to approve drugs—is referring to Moderna’s mRNA-1273 as “the people’s vaccine” and urging the federal government to use patent rights it may co-own with the company to ensure the vaccine is affordable and widely available. Pressure is coming from all ideological sides.
But this is a novel coronavirus, and we don’t have a good track record dealing with the coronaviruses we already knew about. We certainly don’t need the government, advocacy groups or anyone else pushing us toward a goal so quickly that we lose sight of doing it safely and effectively.