by Dr. Alice Brock-Utne
The new COVID19 vaccines are our “moon landing.” In less than a year, humankind has developed a vaccine that could end a global pandemic. Sometime between December 8-10, the vaccine advisory committee, made up of non-FDA experts and citizens, will advise the FDA on whether it should approve the first vaccine to come to market.
2020 has finally brought something great. Can we can temper our cynicism, avoid disinformation, and steer clear of the conspiracy theorists? If so, we might be able to globally cheer this accomplishment. Maybe it will even give us reason to celebrate the end of the COVID pandemic, in person, in groups, not drive by, and not just on Zoom.
The old adage “trust but verify” best describes what our scientists and vaccine advisory boards will be doing in coming weeks.
But, let’s pause for a moment. While relief is in order, we have a few steps between here and there. First we need peer review. I’m excited by the Pfizer and Moderna news release that the vaccines are effective at least 90 percent of the time and I’m thrilled to see them reporting low rates of side effects, but the data needs independent eyeballs. Peer review and review by the vaccine advisory committee ensures the public interest is protected. We must ALWAYS know our vaccines provide more benefit then risk. Good science must be questioned. When peer review occurs the methods, results, and conclusions are questioned, challenged, discussed, and considered by experts. It is a process and a standard that ensures scientific conclusions are sound.
We can’t let our pandemic fatigue get in the way of our better judgement: We need to keep wearing our masks, see each other in well ventilated and outdoor spaces, and socially distance.
When the vaccine advisory committee meets, they’ll consider the public interest in the context of the data presented. The old Reagan-era adage “trust but verify” best describes what our scientists and vaccine advisory boards will be doing in coming weeks. Second, we need patience. Unlike the moon landing, we won’t all gather around the TV for a momentous moment. It will take much of 2021 to get the vaccine into enough people to change the course of this disease. While we keep our patience, we can’t let our pandemic fatigue get in the way of our better judgment. We need to keep wearing our masks, see each other in well ventilated and outdoor spaces, and socially distance.
The need for review and patience aside, this IS the moon landing of our generation. Science has led to an accomplishment that was unimaginable when the pandemic flu hit in 1918/1919! Does the speed of 2020 make you doubt whether the vaccine is safe? There are some who will happily replace your doubt with disinformation and suggest you trust them to guide your decisions. Anti-vaccine advocates have shocking power and too large a voice in our public health conversations. And between the healthcare disruptions brought on by COVID19, the proliferation of disinformation on social media, and the fears driving people into the open arms of anti-vaxxers, we are dangerously close to seeing measles and even polio outbreaks.
Even if the vaccines are only partially as effective as the news releases suggest, we’ll turn the corner on this pandemic.
In 2020, we’ve all become accustomed to feeling like the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet. Conspiracy theorists feed on that. While false, their narratives offer reason for the chaos and explanations for the unexplainable. Over my pediatrics career, I’ve watched the ebb and flow of deception. Those responsible for it careen from one idea to another to explain why we shouldn’t give shots to our children. Even before the unedited and unbalanced microphones of Twitter, Facebook, and Google, conspiracy theories were alive and well, bundling facts together and then attaching cause. The global Anti-Vax movement was kicked off by Englishman, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who capitalized on the fears and sadness of families with autistic children. He first accused MMR of causing autism. Then, the argument switched to the preservatives in the vaccines. Then, when the preservative was changed, the new preservative became the target. Finally, he and his colleagues claimed the problem was the number of vaccines given simultaneously - but then it wasn’t causing autism at all, they said. Instead vaccines were causing asthma and then autoimmune disease. The truth just can’t keep up. It’s tempting to think we can explain away all of our chaos, fears, and sadness. Conspiracies give explanations that may bring comfort to some. But conspiracy theories are disinformation campaigns. And like all disinformation, in the information age, they are one of the most dangerous villains we face.
Like landing on the moon, this is a huge step for humankind.
Even if the vaccines are only partially as effective as the news releases suggest, we’ll turn the corner on this pandemic. Our businesses could be open again, our communities could thrive again, and we could put the global trauma of the COVID pandemic behind us. If the vaccines are as effective as the news releases suggest, we might be able to send COVID19 packing once and for all. Going forward, this technology may be a tool we use to stop the next pandemic before it starts, or to stop diseases that cause terrible harm all over the world. Like landing on the moon, the COVID-19 vaccine is a huge step for humankind. Just imagine what comes next.
Alice Brock-Utne, MD is a pediatrician and mother of three with a streak of geek for science.