Academics: Give us scientific data, not press releases

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Academics: Give us scientific data, not press releases

UWI personnel eager for more info about COVID vaccine

Monday, November 23, 2020

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With talk of significant progress being made in taking a COVID-19 vaccine to market, even academics in the medical field are grappling with the decision about whether or not they would take the drug.

Professor Marvin Reid said he would be “first in line” to get an approved COVID-19 vaccine; he would also encourage his elderly mother to join him. But Reid, who is deputy dean of research of The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona faculty of medical sciences, still has a lot of questions about the vaccines being touted.

“In the press right now there are [a few] major vaccines that we hear about. There's the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine and there's the Oxford vaccine. We're hearing about these things through press releases. This is the only situation I can recall where you get scientific information through the press before we actually see it in our science journals,” he told the Jamaica Observer on Friday.

Press releases, he argued, are crafted by marketing teams who “may overplay the benefits and downplay the harm”.

The UWI has a solid reputation for doing clinical research trials, and has in the past worked, for example, with pharmaceutical giant Merck on a rota virus. This summer it was among those being considered for participation in a COVID-19 vaccine trial by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But Jamaica's comparatively small number of cases at the time made the trial impractical, Reid said. With no inclusion in any of the ongoing trials and no information in the usual scientific journals, he and his colleagues are being guided by what they see in the media. It has been reported that Pfizer's drug has a 95 per cent efficacy rate (up from its initial claim of 90 per cent) while Moderna says its vaccine is 94.5 per cent effective.

Among Reid's unanswered questions: will the vaccines being touted be effective if the virus mutates, as it did recently in Denmark where it was found among minks?; for how long will it provide protection against the virus?; and what are the long-term effects?

“While the trials have shown to be 95 per cent effective, one must recognise that in the majority of persons they have only been followed up for two months, based on what [has been seen] in press releases so far. So the issue is what happens after a year, after two years? We don't know how long it is going to be effective for,” said Reid.

Pointing out that the combination of the economy pummelling and the trail of death caused by the pandemic has given a sense of urgency to the search for a vaccine, he cautioned that the “full effects” of vaccination will take time to assess.

“I understand the enthusiasm, especially when there's a political and an economic overtone to it. But, truth be told, we have to be flexible, adaptive, and recognise that we won't have all the answers. Certainly [it won't be] before another two or three years [until] we can be confident of the answers that we're getting,” he said.

Reid also sought to temper expectations of the drugs' effectiveness, saying lab results done in a controlled environment are typically higher than those seen in the real world.

But even with all the uncertainty, he stressed that he has “absolutely no problem taking the vaccine”. He drew parallels to flying on an airplane, saying while there is the possibility of a crash there is enough evidence to indicate he will get to his destination safely. He can live with the uncertainty, he said, of not knowing what will happen to him six months after he takes the drug.

Virologist and member of the UWI COVID-19 Task Force Dr Joshua Anzinger also said he would take an FDA-approved drug, because that green light would be data-based and it would have cleared the very important third phase of the trial which has a greater number of participants. But he is keeping a watchful eye on the final phase of testing being done by Pfizer.

“I would want to see the results from this last step. That's what everybody is waiting for, the data from the last steps of the very last studies of the phase three which are about to be completed,” he said on Friday. “If all goes well we should be very confident that we have a very safe vaccine that people can take and they should be reassured that it's going to be effective.”

Dr Tomlin Paul, dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, UWI, Mona was even more tempered in his response, saying he needs more information on the side effects of any vaccine being offered. “What we are getting now is mostly information on the efficacy rates,” he pointed out.

Media reports have listed fever and aches among the most common side effects of taking both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Participants have also shared their experiences on social media sites. While academics wait for the medical journals to catch up, Reid is stressing that there is still a long way to go.

“The vaccine is not the end of a journey in and of itself. It's just one component of a broad range of measures which we will have to use as we move forward. It's being portrayed in the media and some people think once you have a vaccine everything goes back to normal. No, that's not how I anticipate it would be,” he said. “Although it's a sliver of hope, people just need to be patient.”


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