Vaccine development for COVID-19 is topic number one, and our collective hope for going back to “normal” dangle on that needle. The global race to market includes pharma’s heavy hitters like Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Moderna, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company that displayed hopeful results in Phase-1 trials and just this week received another $472 million from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a division with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In all, Moderna has received $955 million from US government funding and is considered a top vaccine candidate for “Operation Warp Speed” the federal government’s oversight program for fast-paced vaccine identification and development. suny medical

Moderna’s approach uses messenger RNA (mRNA) to help the body immunize against the virus. This type of treatment can be developed and manufactured faster than typical vaccines, which, in theory, supports the recent assertion made by the company that they could deliver 500 million doses per year by 2021.

Other leading contenders like AstraZeneca, in partnership with Oxford University, has a vaccine in the third and last stage of human trials, and Bill Gates’ South Korean firm SK Bioscience promoted the capability of producing 200 million COVID-19 vaccine kits by June 2021.

Too Fast, Too Soon?

The acceleration of these complex vaccine development programs during a highly politicized global pandemic has some scientists worried that the race to market is outweighing the critical and complicated development process which normally takes years, not months. According to Dr. Stephen Thomas, Chief of Infectious Diseases and Director of Global Health and Translational Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University, “the entire [vaccine development] process can take up to 10 years, sometimes longer … even in times of a public health emergency, it can be difficult to advance a vaccine from concept to the marketplace. I played key roles in developing candidate vaccines for Ebola, MERS-CoV, and Zika, and despite the suffering caused by these diseases, despite their international focus, and despite considerable investment from governments and the pharmaceutical industry, only one of those vaccines (Ebola) has been licensed.”

Moderna’s newer approach may be a departure from what many within the medical community deem “tried and true” processes for vaccine development, but the company has an important ally in Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of NIH since 1984 and considered the country’s leading infectious disease expert. Fauci is working with Moderna for the final round of clinical trials and he has expressed cautious optimism of the progress. Phase-3 trials are slated to start this week and 30,000 enrollees are expected to receive the treatment at 100 sites around the nation. With this critical phase of development underway, Dr. Fauci has repeatedly stressed the importance of a widespread campaign to promote vaccine education. “If we get a widespread uptake of the vaccine, we can put an end to the pandemic and we can create a veil of immunity that could prevent the infection from coming back.”

Vaccine Skepticism

VIGILINT has covered the rise in vaccine-preventable diseases in recent years, linking the anti-vaxxers movement as a critical component to the resurgence of measles in Europe and in small outbreaks within the United States. Vaccine skepticism is nothing new, and it can be more pronounced in certain ethnic and religious groups. A late-May poll conducted by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago shows that the opposition against a near-future COVID-19 vaccine goes beyond the anti-vaxxers niche, and crosses all racial, religious, and socioeconomic lines, as 50% of Americans said that they are either hesitant or that they will not take a COVID-19 vaccine.

Apprehension can be partly attributed to the speed of which these drugs are being developed and the perspective (evidence notwithstanding) that due diligence must somehow be getting circumvented at the expense of going to market before the end of 2020.

Dr. Eric Ossmann, VIGLINT’s Chief Medical Officer, acknowledged the herculean effort that has resulted in multiple viable vaccine candidates, and like Dr. Fauci, expressed cautious optimism of Moderna’s results while underscoring the importance of transparent communication for vaccine education. “Individuals are overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of COVID-19 information, and often distrust the data. We are finding that the onus of trust lies more and more in the employer to employee relationship, as there is the same line of interest there. Protect each other and the community – and protect the business.” VIGILINT works with companies to develop COVID-19 mitigation strategies and COVID-19 education programs that could help dispel vaccine skepticism and promote community wellness.