Doctor who headed up plan to destroy smallpox, now leading process to distribute COVID-19 vaccine

A man considered to be a public health legend who was responsible for the plan to destroy smallpox is now behind a group tapped by policymakers to figure out how a COVID-19 vaccine will be distributed and who gets it first.

Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director and epidemiologist, Dr. Bill Foege, will have to tackle everything from field trials to public trust as he develops the plan for the anticipated vaccine.

Foege addressed some of those questions in a pre-recorded taping for Emory University and Grady Health professionals Friday night.

“What do you think are the most important lessons from the past that you think we should think about?” Emory University epidemiologist Dr. Carlos del Rio asked Foege.

“There are a lot of lessons, which makes me think why we even have to review them now because they’re so clear,” Foege said.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient is credited as the epidemiologist who led a global strategy to eradicate smallpox.

Now he serves on a national advisory committee to make sure there will be a fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Foege stressed the need for the United States to partner with the World Health Organization and get a hold on testing turnaround times to allow effective contact tracing.

In the race to develop a vaccine, his concerns include ensuring the vaccines have been tested properly for side effects and tested in enough people.

“My fear is that we might actually have a confusion of too many vaccines. And what do you do if you start with one vaccine and, three weeks later, a vaccine that looks better? Do you discard the first vaccine? Do you give it to people lower on the totem pole? Do you give it to another country? No, no one’s going to accept that. So we might have a problem with so many vaccines that are good,” Foege said.

Another concern revolves around a recent Gallup Poll that showed a third of Americans polled said they won’t accept a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available.

“And if you are a minority, how can you feel confident that for the first time, society is now giving you a preference, and you say to yourself, ‘No. No, they’re using me as a guinea pig,’ because they don’t want to be the first ones to be vaccinated?” Foege said.

In about a month, Foege’s committee will report back to several groups, including the National Institutes of Health and the CDC, with a plan on how to ensure fair access to a vaccine.

“With all of the problems and all of the things we still have to do, I am optimistic that a vaccine is going to give us a way out,” Foege said.

As that group studies how to move forward with getting a vaccine to people, its meetings are available on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Another concern that came out Friday is how effective an eventual vaccine will be in certain groups, including people who are considered obese.

Scientists are pointing to other vaccines for hepatitis B, rabies, tetanus and the flu that have not been as effective in obese adults. They believe this may also be the case when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine.

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