“There’s a lot of hope for a [coronavirus] vaccine but there obviously has to be a lot of caution,” said a Vanderbilt University pediatrician.
President Donald Trump has pledged to “slash red tape like nobody has even done it before” to accelerate the development of a coronavirus vaccine. But his push could backfire if the government moves too fast, according to public health officials and scientists with decades of experience in the field.
In some cases, a vaccine that hasn’t been properly tested could make people sicker. And if there are complications, the public relations problems could mount, spurring an anti-vaccination sentiment.
“There’s a lot of hope for a [coronavirus] vaccine but there obviously has to be a lot of caution,” said Kathryn Edwards, a Vanderbilt University pediatrician who helped test vaccines against whooping cough, pneumonia, flu and other diseases.
NIH infectious disease leader Anthony Fauci has said it could take 12 to 18 months to make a vaccine available, but even that timetable could be overly ambitious. The most promising technologies haven’t been tested on massive groups of people. And public health officials typically take their time when vetting vaccines targeted at millions.
There are several examples of how fast-tracking vaccines can backfire. A massive campaign to vaccinate against the 1976 swine flu flopped when the disease turned out to be mild, but hundreds of people suffered a rare nerve disorder after vaccination. And a vaccine used in some European countries against H1N1 flu in 2009 caused some people to develop the sleep disorder narcolepsy.
The Trump administration has already allowed one vaccine maker to begin testing its coronavirus shot in people before completing standard safety testing in animals — normally the first step in the long process of determining a vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
The president wants to show that he is activating the full power of the federal government in pushing for the health care system to react, treat and find a vaccine. But the infrastructure of vaccine development is not conducive to political pressure or a runaway pandemic.
And while no one is saying the current candidate vaccines are dangerous, they warrant dutiful examination “because in contrast to drugs, vaccines are given only to healthy people,” said Barry Bloom, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “We have to be enormously careful not to harm anyone.”
If there are harms, he added, “the antivaxxers can set back not only this vaccine but all vaccines.”
A growing anti-vaccine movement contributed to the U.S. measles epidemic last year — the worst since 1992. Anti-vaxxers are already spreading conspiracy stories about the virus and predicting massive injuries from any vaccine, said Renée DiResta, who monitors such groups at the Stanford Internet Observatory.
Lives in the balance
Most people will be eager to get vaccinated if the coronavirus continues on its terrifying course. Experts say the vaccine types with the best chance of early approval seem safe, though none has been licensed for human use. If properly warned of possible side effects, people might accept them in exchange for a shot that keeps them from getting sick or spreading the disease.
Some even suggest it would be unethical not to accelerate the approval process at a time when the virus is killing thousands worldwide.
“The normal development of a vaccine is long and large and defensive because you’re developing something to be given to healthy people, most of whom will stay healthy and will never need the benefit of the vaccine,” said Michael Watson, who has developed vaccines for 25 years — including at Moderna, which is working on a vaccine with the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “If you’re developing a cancer treatment, you can take quite a bit of risk for saving someone’s life. And the situation also changes when you’re in a global pandemic.”
Still, it’s unclear how fast is too fast.