Published December 21, 2020
By Timothy F. Murphy, MD
Infectious Diseases Physician Scientist, SUNY Distinguished Professor
Director, Clinical and Translational Science Institute
Speaking from the perspective of someone who is passionate about clinical and translational research, last week was momentous. The FDA has granted Emergency Use Authorization of the first two vaccines for coronavirus. Both vaccines are safe and highly effective in well done, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials that included a combined 74,000 participants. This is a remarkable achievement for a virus that was discovered less than a year ago, particularly when one considers that the usual pipeline for developing a new drug or vaccine is 14 years! These vaccines represent a critical landmark in controlling the pandemic, through preventing this potentially deadly disease and providing hope for returning to “normal.”
But we are not there yet. While the vaccines are a triumph of translational research, ending the pandemic will require that approximately 75% of the population receive the vaccine to bring about herd immunity. This undertaking will require a significant achievement in behavioral science and social marketing. A worrisome proportion of the population is reluctant to accept the vaccine, creating a significant barrier to achieving herd immunity. Preexisting vaccine hesitancy that is prevalent nationally is exacerbated in the case of COVID-19 vaccines. The rapid timeline for development of the vaccine and the unfortunate politicization of these vaccines have led to increases in vaccine hesitancy.
Messaging to restore trust in the development of the vaccine (which actually occurred as part of a 15-year project), in the scientific rigor of the clinical trials, and in the integrity of the approval process will resonate with some but not all of those who are skeptical. Some people make their decisions about vaccines influenced more by emotions and beliefs than facts. There is no single strategy that will address all of the barriers to vaccine acceptance. Campaigns that address knowledge deficits alone have not been effective. It will be important to develop a comprehensive strategy to enhance vaccine acceptance in our community, particularly when more vaccine becomes available in the coming months. I predict that our community-university partnership will rise to the challenge.
From the December 16, 2020, issue of Translational Spotlight.