With a brighter future hanging on the hopes of an approved COVID-19 vaccine, is it possible to win over the minds of fearful citizens who challenge the value or safety of vaccination?
Globally, nine COVID-19 vaccines so far are being tested for safety in early phase human clinical trials.
It's a decades-old practice. With a dose injected into the arm of a healthy patient, doctors aim to prevent illness with a vaccine shot designed to trigger a person's immune system to fight serious infection without getting the disease.
This week, in fact, the U.S. frontrunner vaccine candidate, developed by Moderna, safely produced an immune response in the first eight healthy volunteers, the company announced. A large efficacy trial is planned to start in July. But if positive signals for safety and efficacy result from that trial, will that be enough to convince the public to broadly embrace a new vaccine?
"Throughout the history of vaccines there has always been a small vocal minority who don't believe vaccines work or don't trust the science," says sociologist and researcher Jennifer Reich, a professor at the University of Colorado in Denver and author of Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines.
Research indicates that only about 2 percent of the population say vaccines aren't necessary under any circumstance. Remarkably, a quarter to one third of American parents delay or reject the shots, not because they are anti-vaccine, but because they disapprove of the recommended timing or administration, says Reich.
Additionally, addressing distrust about how they come to market is key when talking to parents, workers or anyone targeted for a new vaccine, she says.
"When I talk to parents about why they reject vaccines for their kids, a lot of them say that they don't fully trust the process by which vaccines are regulated and tested," says Reich. "They don't trust that vaccine manufacturers -- which are for-profit companies -- are looking out for public health."
Globally, nine COVID-19 vaccine candidates so far are being tested for safety in early phase human clinical trials and more than 100 are under development as scientists hustle to curtail the disease. Creating a new vaccine at a record pace requires a delicate balance of benefit and risk, says vaccinology expert Dr. Kathryn Edwards, professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.
"We take safety very seriously," says Dr. Edwards. "We don't want something bad to happen, but we also realize that we have a terrible outbreak and we have a lot of people dying. We want to figure out how we can stop this."
In the U.S., all vaccine clinical trials have a data safety board of experts who monitor results for adverse reactions and red flags that should halt a study, notes Dr. Edwards. Any candidate that succeeds through safety and efficacy trials still requires review and approval by the Food and Drug Administration before a public launch.
Community vs. Individual
A major challenge to the deployment of a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine goes beyond the technical realm. A persistent all-out anti-vaccine sentiment has found a home and growing community on social media where conspiracies thrive. Main tenets of the movement are that vaccines are ineffective, unsafe and cause autism, despite abundant scientific evidence to the contrary.
Best-case scenario, more than one successful vaccine ascends with competing methods to achieve the same goal of preventing or lessening the severity of the COVID-19 virus.
In fact, widespread use of vaccines is considered by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to be one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th Century. The World Health Organization estimates that between two million to three million deaths are avoided each year through immunization campaigns that employ vaccination to control life-threatening infectious diseases.
Most people reluctant to give their children vaccines, however, don't oppose them for everyone, but believe that they are a personal choice, says Reich.
"They think that vaccines are one strategy in personal health optimization, but they shouldn't be mandated for participation in any part of civil society," she says.
Vaccine hesitancy, like the teeter totter of social distancing acceptance, reflects the push and pull of individual versus community values, says Reich.
"A lot of people are saying, 'I take personal responsibility for my own health and I don't want a city or a county or state telling me what I should and shouldn't do,'" says Reich. "Then we also see calls for collective responsibility that says 'It's not your personal choice. This is about helping health systems function. This is about making sure vulnerable people are protected.'"
These same debates are likely to continue if a vaccine comes to market, she says.
Building Public Confidence
Reich offers solutions to address the conflict between embedded American norms and widespread embrace of an approved COVID-19 vaccine. Long-term goals: Stop blaming people when they get sick, treat illness as a community responsibility, make sick leave common for all workers, and improve public health systems.
"In the shorter run," says Reich, "health authorities and companies that might bring a vaccine to market need to work very hard to explain to the public why they should trust this vaccine and why they should use it."
The rush for a viable vaccine raises questions for consumers. To build public confidence, it's up to FDA reviewers, institutions and pharmaceutical companies to explain "what steps were skipped. What steps moved forward. How rigorous was safety testing. And to make that information clear to the public," says Reich.
Dr. Edwards says clinical trial timelines accelerated to test vaccines in humans make all the safeguards involved in the process that more compelling and important.
"There's no question we need a vaccine," she says. "But we also have to make sure that we don't harm people."
The Road Ahead
Think of manufacturing and distribution as key pitstops to keep the race for a vaccine on the road to the finish line. Both elements require substantial effort and consideration.
The speed of getting a vaccine to those who need it could hinge on the type of technology used to create it. Best-case scenario, more than one successful vaccine ascends with competing methods to achieve the same goal of preventing or lessening the severity of the COVID-19 virus.
Technological platforms fall into two basic camps, those that are proven and licensed for other viruses, and experimental approaches that may hold great promise but lack regulatory approval, says Maria Elena Bottazzi, co-director of Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Moderna, for instance, employs an experimental technology called messenger RNA (mRNA) that has produced the encouraging early results in human safety trials, although some researchers criticized the company for not making the data public. The mRNA vaccine instructs cells to make copies of the key COVID-19 spike protein, with the goal of then triggering production of immune cells that can recognize and attack the virus if it ever invades the body.
"We were already seeing a lot of dissent around questions of individual freedoms and community responsibilities."
Scientists always look for ways to incorporate new technologies into drug development, says Bottazzi. On the other hand, the more basic and generic the technology, theoretically, the faster production could ramp up if a vaccine proves successful through all phases of clinical trials, she says.
"I don't want to develop a vaccine in my lab, but then I don't have anybody to hand it off to because my process is not suitable" for manufacturing or scalability, says Bottazzi.
Researchers at the Baylor lab hope to repurpose a shelved vaccine developed for the genetically similar SARS virus, with a strategy to leverage what is already known instead of "starting from scratch" to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. A recombinant protein technology similar to that used for an approved Hepatitis B vaccine lets scientists focus on identifying a suitable vaccine target without the added worry of a novel platform, says Bottazzi.
The Finish Line
If and when a COVID-19 vaccine is approved is anyone's guess. Announcing a plan to hasten vaccine development via a program dubbed Operation Warp Speed, President Trump said recently one could be available "hopefully" by the end of the year or early 2021.
Scientists urge caution, noting that safe vaccines can take 10 years or more to develop. If a rushed vaccine turns out to have safety and efficacy issues, that could add ammunition to the anti-vaccine lobby.
Emergence of a successful vaccine requires an "enormous effort" with many complex systems from the lab all the way to manufacturing enough capacity to handle a pandemic, says Bottazzi.
"At the same time, you're developing it, you're really carefully assessing its safety and ability to be effective," she says, so it's important "not to get discouraged" if it takes longer than a year or more.
To gauge if a vaccine works on a broad scale, it would have to be delivered into communities where the virus is active. There are examples in history of life-saving vaccines going first to people who could pay for them and not to those who needed them most, says Reich.
"Agencies are going to have to think about how those distribution decisions are going to be made and who is going to make them and that will go a certain way toward reassuring the public," says Reich.
A Gallup survey last year found that vaccine confidence, in general, remains high, with 86 percent of Americans believing that vaccines are safer than the diseases that they are designed to prevent. Still, recent news organization polls indicate that roughly 20 to 25 percent of Americans say they won't or are unlikely to get a COVID-19 vaccine if one becomes available.
Until the 1980s, every vaccine to hit the market was appreciated; a culture of questioning science didn't exist in the same way as today, notes Reich. Time passed and attitudes changed.
"We were already having robust arguments nationally about what counts as an expert, what's the role of the government in daily life," says Reich. "We were already seeing a lot of dissent around questions of individual freedoms and community responsibilities. COVID-19 did not create those conflicts, but they've definitely become more visible since we've moved into this pandemic."
On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust<p>When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of <a href="http://www.kateto.net/covid19/COVID19%20CONSORTIUM%20REPORT%2013%20TRUST%20SEP%202020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>several</u></a> <a href="https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID19-CONSORTIUM-REPORT-14-MISINFO-SEP-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>reports</u></a> measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.</p><p> The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery. </p><p>During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe. </p>
The Shift in How We Consume Information<p>In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ978264.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>March of Dimes crusade</u></a>. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551508/?page=3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>less likely to have confidence</u></a> in the vaccine, but most people consumed <a href="https://www.c-span.org/video/?506891-1/a-special-report-polio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>media that assured them</u></a> of the vaccine's safety and <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized them</u></a> to receive it. </p><p>Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-science.html?referringSource=articleShare" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>is deeply politicized</u></a>. </p><p>This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified. </p><p>Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."</p>
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence<p>So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bob-woodward-rage-book-trump/2020/09/09/0368fe3c-efd2-11ea-b4bc-3a2098fc73d4_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>downplayed the effects and threat of the virus</u></a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/14/cdc-directors-trump-politics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>censored experts and scientists</u></a>, <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/06/america-giving-up-on-pandemic/612796/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>given up on containing the spread</u></a>, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/covid-coronavirus.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized his base to protest masks</u></a>. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/nation-of-miracles-pence-coronavirus-vaccine-rnc-402949" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>"miracle" of a vaccine</u></a>. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."</p><p> Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/african-american-resistance-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-reflects-a-broader-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>specific populations with historic reasons for distrust</u></a>, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine. </p><p> Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves. </p>
Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.
Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.
This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.
Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.