Will you take the first available Covid-19 vaccine?

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Will you take the first available Covid-19 vaccine? Michael Tuohy and Vanshika Dhyani discuss.

YES by Michael Tuohy

The end of the year is fast-approaching and pharmaceutical companies and scientists have been working flat-out all through 2020 to develop a safe and effective vaccine for the virus that causes Covid-19. Health officials have said the roll-out of a vaccine is the only thing that can ensure a full return to the normality people knew before this pandemic. Although the research is by no means complete, there is a strong sense of optimism in the medical and scientific community about the prospect of a vaccine in 2021.

US drugmaker Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE released final late-stage trial data on November 18th that showed their shot was 95% effective at stopping Covid-19, the highest efficacy rate so far. The companies are the first to publish final Phase III efficacy and safety data and plan to apply for an Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) in the United States within days. Interim late-stage trial results for Russia's Sputnik V vaccine were published on November 11th and showed their shot is 92% effective. On November 16th, US pharmaceutical company Moderna Inc. released interim data showing that its vaccine worked in a large, late-stage clinical trial with a 94.5% efficacy rate. AstraZeneca said recently its vaccine for the novel coronavirus, developed by Oxford University, could be around 90% effective without any serious side effects, and Johnson & Johnson says it is on track to deliver data for theirs this year. It is clear that soon multiple Covid-19 vaccines will be ready for distribution. That’s the good news; more approved vaccines mean more vaccine doses will be more readily available. The bad news is that vaccines don’t stop pandemics — vaccinations do. Now comes the hard work of vaccine distribution, and most importantly, ensuring that people take the vaccine. 

Vaccination is one of the top medical discoveries of all time. From the development of the world’s very first vaccine for smallpox in the late 1700s to the more recent HPV vaccine for cervical cancer, vaccines have prevented millions of deaths and disabilities worldwide. However, humanity seems to have a short memory. So many crises have happened in just the past 100 years that were solved by important vaccines. I understand hesitation, but a lot of these hesitant members of society are either Anti-Vaxxers spreading misinformation or people that have been misinformed and therefore have a skewed view towards this whole situation. 

There are a lot of misinformation campaigns out there that would lead you to believe that the vaccines for the coronavirus will be dangerous. They would have you think that the success rate for vaccinations means if you’re in the 5%-10% that aren’t immediately sorted by the vaccine, that you’re doomed and you’ll die from whatever after-effects it may have. They pose questions like “how did this vaccine take such a short time to make when all other vaccines took years or decades?" But teams around the world are building on decades of research, with existing technologies being adapted to target Covid-19. It may seem like they just started doing this at the end of January, but actually, they’ve been working on it for years. If it’s not effective first time round, you’ll be able to go get another shot, and hopefully, it’ll work that time. It’s doubtful the virus will be completely eradicated in the world, but we can control it and make sure it’s as dangerous as any cold or flu. 

When the vaccines are available will you roll up your sleeve and take your medicine? I’ve tried to be careful about where I go, where I eat, keep my distance, wear a mask and wash my hands often, but I still worry about catching the virus. Not shaking hands was an easy one for me and I hope that habit becomes something you tell your grandchildren we used to do. Our health care providers are getting better at treating people who do catch Covid-19 and the death rates are falling, but people are still dying at an alarming rate. It is up to us to help slow the spread of Covid-19 and the regular flu. We need to be careful and behave until vaccines are readily available, but we also need our small businesses to survive. It might be a fine line between staying at home and venturing out, but life does go on.

Rain and cold weather has arrived, so try and stay safe and get a flu shot if you normally do. Be thankful for what we have and think about those less fortunate. Step up when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available so we can find a new normal. We need to get back to our lives. We need our economy to get up and running again, and small businesses to get going once more. We need to see our friends and family again, for the sake of our own collective mental health. We all need this. 

Rebuttal to YES by Vanshika Dhyani

I too have been cautious about where I go and where I eat. I have followed the government guidelines for social distancing, and not once have I stepped out of my house without an N95 mask. I sanitize my hands regularly and the surfaces constantly, I don't touch my face and I haven't shaken a hand since March. And still I worry about catching the virus. The fact is that if I get the virus, I might or might not get a bad case of it and even if I do, my chances for recovery would be something I can gamble with. I might have more to lose if I decide to get a vaccine that has not spent enough time in phase 3 human trials and hasn't been evaluated for safe use and long term side effects.

While a Vaccine might be considered the only hope for normality, health experts say that we will be wearing masks and social distancing well into 2022. My rationale is that we wait a little longer and make a global strategic plan to manufacture and distribute the vaccine - our economically and socially vulnerable groups will not be at a disadvantage. This time can be utilized to study the vaccine in adversely affected areas to better understand the vaccine. This will allow them to collect more data and be completely transparent about the safety, efficacy and approval of the vaccine.

The catastrophic events of 2020 caused an economic crisis, a breakdown of our society, and was a major setback for people all around the globe. Be that as it may, compromising our health for a low-grade vaccine just to accelerate a return to normal seems rash and misguided. And that is why I will not get in line to be vaccinated any time soon.

NO by Vanshika Dhyani

I’m not someone who easily buys into conspiracy and I’m not sceptical of the science of vaccination. However, I cannot seem to dispel my concerns over the soon to be available Covid-19 vaccine. The vaccine debate has been around for over two hundred years, what I wonder is why science hasn't been able to settle this for once and for all?

The truth is that it has nothing to do with science and everything to do with trust. At the pinnacle of the Anti-Vax movement rests a single, big question: Do we trust our vaccine developers, our healthcare system, our government, even after they’ve failed us over and over again? Vaccine hesitation refers to anxiety, disinclination or refusal to be (or to have one’s children) vaccinated against transmissible infections. While this hesitancy comes from a shaky hold on science and lack of trust in the public health system, my anti-vax sentiment stems not from a disbelief in the seriousness of the disease and its deleterious effects but from an ill-considered, imprudent and impulsive approval of an inadequate Covid-19 vaccine. Thus, I make my argument not as an anti-vaxxer but as an individual who refuses to become a lab-rat for a premature Covid-19 vaccine.

Dishonourable practices in the pharmaceutical industry and the development of drugs under a conflict of interest contribute to the ever-growing mistrust in our system. The European Medicines Agency (EMA), The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its equivalents in other countries are responsible for administering public health through evaluation of drugs and vaccines before they become available to the public. However, there have been cases, lawsuits and protests where unethical pharmaceutical practices have jeopardized public health, and more than a few times. In the past, pharmaceutical companies have manufactured, promoted and distributed unapproved drugs to the public, by peddling products through doctors. 

For instance, Rofecoxib was circulated by Merck - one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world - in the year 1999. It was marketed as a safer substitute to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication to treat joint pain and stiffness due to osteoarthritis. Scientists were concerned about the ill-effects of the drug on the patient's cardiovascular system from an early developmental stage. However, in its new drug application to the FDA, Merck conveniently left out intervention studies based on the possible cardiovascular risk. The drug was a hit in the pharmaceutical industry and was averaging $2.5bn in its annual sales, while its consumers remained oblivious to the increased risk of heart attack and stroke associated with its long-term and high-dosage use. It wasn't until 2004 after more than eighty million people were prescribed Rofecoxib that the billion-dollar franchise decided to pull the product out of the market. 

What is to say the same wouldn't be the case for a Coronavirus vaccine? 

As the numbers continue to rise, and the availability of ICUs and other healthcare facilities go on shrinking, the importance of a safe and effective vaccine is paramount. I agree that the quicker we have a formula that works, the faster we can manufacture and distribute the vaccine to flatten the curve. Having said that, we must realise that this vaccine is being manufactured under surplus socio-political pressure. The stakes are higher than they have ever been and the whole world is a stage. The developers of a successful vaccine will come upon not only a huge sum of money and an incredibly successful career but also global fame, historical recognition and a possible Nobel Prize. In such circumstances is it really that far from the truth to assume that the vaccine might be compromised?

Data collected by the Pew Research Center suggests that only 51% of Americans would definitely or probably get a coronavirus vaccine, while an estimated 49% of the adults would definitely or probably not get it. When a similar survey was conducted back in May, 72% of the public was inclined towards getting vaccinated. Today, 77% believe that a vaccine will be approved before it is completely tested for safe and effective use. Nearly 8 in 10 Americans are concerned about the vaccine approval process being too hasty. Based on this statistical data, it is safe to assume that the urgent need for a vaccine may overpower scientific integrity, and force the public to accept a substandard treatment that might result in long term repercussions.  

Russia’s Sputnik V - the first Covid-19 vaccine to be registered - skipped Phase 3 trials, casting a shadow on its success rate and side effects. This lack of transparency resurfaces my concern about being vaccinated for a disease we don’t fully understand. Sputnik V was also criticised by America’s prime contagious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who voiced his concerns over Russia’s hurried production and distribution of the vaccine. 

What adds further to my anxiety about the vaccine is that the developers of BNT162b2 - the brainchild of an American biotech company Pfizer and its German counterpart BioNTech - are seeking an emergency approval of its coronavirus vaccine. Although Phase 3 trials culminated with a 95% success rate, we simply don't have enough data to assume that the treatment is safe, in addition to being effective. Furthermore, once the FDA has approved the vaccine a full-scale production and distribution of the will be set into motion, despite the concerning lack of data.

Rebuttal to NO by Michael Tuohy

I completely understand being sceptical of the new vaccines coming through. All this work that would normally take years has been crammed into 10 months and it’s hard to think about how that could be successful. But at the same time, we have to look at the sheer amount of money and hours that have been put into the development of this vaccine. It is completely incomparable to any other vaccine development in the history of science. The eyes of the entire world have been set onto this one vaccine, and scientists have had years of experience with dealing with viruses like Covid-19 in the past. This is a culmination of those years of experience, coupled with the major scientific breakthroughs that have happened since the SARS outbreak. 

Alongside this, I agree that it’s right to be sceptical of the many large companies that have developed these vaccines. They are all clearly in it for the fame and profit that being the ones to crack the code and bring our world back to normality would bring to them. At the same time though, these companies don’t want to be notorious for all the wrong reasons. They aren’t going to approve vaccines that don’t work or cause major illnesses in people, as if they did they’d be known as the company that ruined people’s lives even further, and they’d no longer make any money. These major companies have already been losing out on major amounts of cash throughout this pandemic and definitely want the world to go back to how it was so everything can stabilise. We all need this to work.