The COVID-19 Vaccine is Coming. But Will We Be Ready? Alan Kadish, M.D.
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As the COVID pandemic continues to spread around the world, progress on vaccine development has been encouraging. Although it is premature to declare victory, three vaccines are now entering large-scale clinical trials. They all work in different ways, providing some hope that one or more will prove effective. While there have been some missteps in handling the coronavirus, the efforts to fast track vaccine development of different types, although not yet successful, have largely gone well. It is no surprise that many people are cheering this news. A potential vaccine in development at this pace was inconceivable a few short months ago. With luck, a vaccine will be ready for wide-scale use in about a year, a dramatic improvement over the typical time frame of 10 to 15 years for most vaccines. The next question is, “who will be vaccinated?” Indeed, one would expect that the biggest issue is that too many people want to rush to be protected. Shockingly, polls show otherwise. In some, half of Americans say they are skeptical about the safety of a coronavirus vaccine and may refuse to take it. This is more than surprising; it is dangerous. The best way to stop this pandemic is by administering a vaccine to the large majority of people. While there are those who have resisted taking vaccines in the past, the risk/benefit ratio for a potential coronavirus vaccine is different. Coronavirus is highly infectious and, in many cases, highly lethal, particularly to vulnerable members of society such as the elderly, disadvantaged and malnourished. The case for preventing the spread of the coronavirus, even if it involves some modest risks, could not be clearer. Along with the continued breakneck-paced scientific research, we need a massive public education program to encourage vaccination. Once a vaccine is developed, we need to ensure that everyone who is potentially a
candidate gets immunized. This will require massive education, advertising and engaging role models for the elderly and other vulnerable communities. This public education campaign needs to start now, while we still have time. As a first step, we must understand why so many people are saying that they will not agree to be vaccinated. I can make some educated guesses based on data from other anti-vaccine movements. Some have long-standing religious objections to many advanced medical therapies, but they represent only a tiny fraction of those who object to vaccination. Past health care discrimination has led to skepticism about traditional medicine in some minority communities. The history of unequal treatment is real and disturbing. It must be addressed so that it does not lead to widespread death and disease. Conspiracy theorists who have come to dominate segments of social media pose the greatest danger. Conspiracy theories about vaccines have helped lead to resistance to measles vaccines and the resurgence of measles in the United States. When COVID-19 first appeared, the World Health Organization warned of an “infodemic” of misinformation. We need to stop this infodemic in its tracks to stop the pandemic. All medical treatments have some side effects — that should not deter us from clear-headed risk benefit analysis. Vaccines are not a plot by some cabal. Pharmaceutical companies do not by and large make large profits from low-cost vaccines. We have the expertise to launch such a campaign. The Centers for Disease Control is investing in educational campaigns to make people more aware of the dangers of prescription opioids and to help people prevent Type 2 diabetes, to name just two. Regardless of which of the vaccines is released commercially, some side effects will be present. Some people may even become ill. But we know the devastation that the unchecked COVID-19 pandemic can cause. We have to individually, communally and as members of the world community take the risks needed if vaccines are shown in largescale trials to be safe and effective. Refusing the vaccine not only puts individuals and their family at risk, but it violates the compact that ought to hold us all together as human beings. We can’t fail again. As appeared in LoHud on August 12, 2020.