Editor's focus: Vaccines increasingly under perilous scrutiny

Vaccines hardly deserve the suspicion they're being faced with of late, but developers need to keep their standards high and meet it nonetheless

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I don’t often engage anti-vaccination folks online, as I don’t have enough time in the day to deal with the backlash and trying to tell people that vaccination is hardly the area where pharma companies are going to see—or try to get—a major boost to their income streams. Vaccines can be powerful agents in the fight against disease, and they are potential profit points as well—but the notion of grand corporate conspiracies to push “dangerous” vaccines is irksome to me, and sometimes I do feel the need to point out the realities of the pharma business and that preventing or eradicating diseases doesn’t tend to be lucrative in the same way as making medicines for chronic conditions and treating the symptoms more than the cause.
And as more companies do work on vaccines for infectious disease threats worldwide—or look into vaccinations against other diseases like cancer—we are seeing much more about vaccines, as well as much more pushback from the anti-vaccination camp.
So it was a bit distressing, as I mulled over what to write this month, that I heard a story on my public radio station about not only the limited approval of a Dengue virus vaccine from Sanofi (limited in that it should only be administered now to children who have had a previous case of Dengue), but also the news that Sanofi is facing potential litigation over some deaths in the Philippines that might be related to that vaccine.
In no way am I either defending or faulting Sanofi or any other companies that now or in the future will face claims that their vaccines have risks that were not properly shared with the public—I simply don’t know enough about the whole story, both what we the public know and what happened behind closed doors in Sanofi’s offices in terms of decision-making.
But what I do think is that we are at a precarious point with vaccines, as more are added to routine schedules for children and more become available for diseases that have not been dealt with via vaccination before.
The last thing vaccines need is more bad press than they are already going to get from people who deny the science behind vaccines. Much of that negative coverage is undeserved but, as with this case, there are sometimes warning signs with pharmaceuticals that are not adequately addressed or explored in the push toward approval.
As is so often the case, I don’t have the answers. I don’t know the proper balance between the need for speed to market (for health and profit reasons both), and I don’t have the scientific background to judge or advise.
But I would like to urge whatever pharma companies might be listening that a bit of extra caution might be needed in navigating, mitigating and sharing potential risks. We have seen many other drugs for non-infectious-disease conditions turn out to have unexpected (or underdisclosed) risks that caused them to be suspended or given more limited scope. What we don’t need for something as powerful and valuable as new vaccines is for the spotlight of the media, court cases and the like to blind people to their value and harm their long-fought good reputation.

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