No matter your feelings on masks and lockdowns, nearly everyone agrees that there’s one surefire way to end the COVID-19 pandemic. A safe and effective vaccine.
For months, it looked as though President Trump planned to use a vaccine announcement as an "October surprise" in the presidential election, even though development of the drugs is a slow and painstaking process. Thankfully, recent actions by the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies themselves have made that less likely.
Let’s hope it stays that way. We need a vaccine soon, yes, but it must be trusted.
First off, the FDA announced guidance for emergency authorization of a vaccine after tangling with the White House about whether the rules were necessary. They clearly are. In a polarized country teeming with conspiracy theories, we all benefit from scientific rigor.
Second, drugmakers themselves pledged not to submit their vaccines for approval until they had cleared safety hurdles and been shown to work. We’ve already seen their dedication to this process, with AstraZeneca pausing tests on its vaccine to examine a report of adverse effects.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but we should be heartened to see delays in the vaccine process. Usually, the process of creating, testing and deploying a vaccine takes years if not decades. The reason? Vaccines are one of the only drugs taken by people who are well. If you’re sick, or if you have a chronic condition that threatens your health in the long run, medication is critical. Any side effects are balanced against the benefits of treatment.
On the other hand, a COVID-19 vaccine should theoretically be taken by everyone. A good chunk of those people might never get the virus. So its safety should be the highest priority.
We should also keep an eye on the vaccine’s effectiveness. The yearly flu shot, for example, is sometimes only about 50% effective at preventing infections. That 50% counts for a lot, though, in slowing or stopping spread. (The vaccine can also ensure that if you do contract the flu, it’s a milder case).
It’s possible that the first COVID-19 vaccines to market will behave similarly. That is, they will offer protection a good chunk of the time, for a good number of people, but possibly not 100%. We may end up needing to take a booster shot every year or two. And as we learn what works and what doesn’t, we will all still need to keep wearing masks, distancing from one another, avoiding crowds and washing our hands.
A safe and effective vaccine is crucial. But we should all — drugmakers and everyday folks alike — focus on getting it right.