States have been told by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention they should prepare for a coronavirus vaccine by “late October or early November,” according to reports last Wednesday. But an untested coronavirus vaccine may have serious and fatal side effects, could even make the disease worse, and may very well have an effect on the election.
What’s the worst that could happen if we give an untested vaccine to millions of people?
We received a reminder today, when one of the leading large coronavirus vaccine trials by AstraZeneca and Oxford University was paused due to a “suspected serious adverse reaction.” There are eight other potential coronavirus vaccines that have reached Phase 3, which is the phase that enrolls tens of thousands of people and compares how they do with the vaccine against people who only get a placebo. Those eight include China’s CanSino Biologics product that was approved for military use without proper testing back in July, and Russia’s coronavirus vaccine that has been tested in only 76 people.
If the CDC distributes an untested coronavirus vaccine this Fall, it would be the largest drug trial in history—with all of the risks and none of the safeguards.
“Approving a vaccine without testing would be like climbing into a plane that has never been tested,” said Tony Moody, MD, director of the Duke Collaborative Influenza Vaccine Innovation Centers. “It might work, but failure could be catastrophic.”
One concern about this vaccine is that it’s tracking to be an “October surprise.” From Henry Kissinger’s “peace is at hand” speech regarding a ceasefire in Vietnam less than two weeks before the 1972 election to former FBI Director James Comey’s letter that he would reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, October surprises have always had the potential to shift elections. But never before have they had the potential to catastrophically shift the health of an already fragile nation.
If there is an October surprise in the form of an untested coronavirus vaccine, it won’t be the first time that a vaccine was rushed out as a political stunt to increase an incumbent president’s election chances.
What happened with the last vaccine rush
On March 24, 1976, in response to a swine flu outbreak, President Gerald Ford asked Congress for $135 million for “each and every American to receive an inoculation.”
How badly did the Swine Flu campaign of 1976 go? Well, one of the drug companies made two million doses of the wrong Swine Flu vaccine, vaccines weren’t exactly effective for people under 24, and insurance companies said, no way, they didn’t want to be liable for the science experiment of putting this vaccine into 120 million bodies.
By December, the Swine Flu vaccination program was suspended when people started to develop Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare neurological condition whose risk was seven times higher in people who got the vaccine and which paralyzed more than 500 people and killed at least 25.
What else can go wrong when vaccines are rushed
“Vaccines are some of the safest medical products in the world, but there can be serious side effects in some instances that are often only revealed by very large trials,” said Kate Langwig, Ph.D., an infectious disease ecologist at Virginia Tech.
One of the other possible side effects is known as vaccine enhancement, the very rare case when the body makes antibodies in response to a vaccine but the antibodies help a second infection get into cells, something that has been seen in dengue fever. “The vaccine, far from preventing Covid-19, might turn out to make a patient’s disease worse,” said Nir Eyal, D.Phil., a bioethics professor at Rutgers University.
We do not know whether a coronavirus vaccine might cause vaccine enhancement, but we need to. In 1966, a vaccine trial against respiratory syncytial virus, a disease that many infants get, caused more than 80 percent of infants and children who received the vaccine to be hospitalized and killed two.
All of these risks can be prevented, but safety takes patience, something that an American public which has had to bury more than 186,000 is understandably short on and Trump seems to be allergic to.
“To put this into perspective, the typical length of making a vaccine is fifteen to twenty years,” said Paul Offit, MD, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Offit’s laboratory developed a vaccine for rotavirus, a disease that kills infants. That process began in the 1980s and wasn’t completed until 2006. The first scientific papers behind the HPV vaccine, for example, were published in the early 1990s, but the vaccine wasn’t licensed until 2006.
An untested vaccine may also prove a deadly distraction. “An ineffective vaccine could create a false sense of security and perhaps reduce the emphasis on social distancing, mask wearing, hand hygiene,” said Atul Malhotra, MD, a pulmonologist at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.
Other issues with inadequately tested vaccines
Even worse, an untested vaccine may have consequences far beyond the present pandemic. Even today, one poll shows that only 57% of people would take a coronavirus vaccine. (Some experts argue that we need 55 to 82% to develop herd immunity.)
If we don’t get the vaccine right the first time, there may not be enough public trust for a next time. “Vaccines are a lot like social distancing. They are most effective if we work cooperatively and get a lot of people to take them,” said Langwig. “If we erode the public’s trust through the use of unsafe or ineffective vaccines, we may be less likely to convince people to be vaccinated in the future.”
“You don't want to scare people off, because vaccines are our way out of this,” said Dr. Offit.
So, how will you be able to see through the fog of the vaccine war and know when a vaccine is safe to take? “Data,” said Dr. Moody, “to see if the vaccine did not cause serious side effects in those who got it, and that those who got the vaccine had a lower rate of disease, hospitalization, death, or any other metric that means it worked. And we really, really want to see that people who got the vaccine did not do worse than those who did not.
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