The fate-of-humankind question isn’t “When will a vaccine arrive?”
It’s also: “Who will take the vaccine?”
Two things happened last week to help us answer both.
Last Tuesday, the heads of five Big Pharma companies offered their “quick and honest assessment” of their COVID-19 vaccine candidates to members of the US Congress.
AstraZeneca plans to start supplying 300 million doses of their drug candidate AZD1222 to the US starting in October and continuing through 2021. The timing depends on the success of a Phase 3 clinical trial with 30,000 participants and a pediatric trial. So far, a single dose of AZD1222 resulted in a 400% increase in antibodies to COVID-19 in 95% of participants one month after injection.
Moderna is set to start its own Phase 3 trial with 30,000 participants as well. Their CEO said Moderna might have data by the end of this year they can submit to the FDA to decide on its distribution. Moderna plans to have “millions of doses of vaccine available.”
Pfizer hopes to make up to 100 million doses of its candidate by December of this year and 1.3 billion more in 2021.
Johnson & Johnson will have results of the Phase 3 trial of its candidate by early next year, and Merck doesn’t expect to have a vaccine “until 2021 at the earliest.”
But as Dr. Julie Gerberding, Merck’s chief patient officer, noted: “This all assumes that things will go exactly as planned and those of us who are experienced with vaccines know that this isn’t always the case.”
In fact, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that things going exactly as planned are almost never the case.
The pharma CEOs were unanimous on one factor that could blunt the vaccine’s effect. That is “vaccine hesitancy.”
In other words, the anti-vaxxers. For now, I will call them otherwise normal citizens who, against all credible scientific evidence, believe that getting vaccinated will kill or sicken them and their children.
This is a growing malignancy in America and would represent a huge threat to its public health, even without a pandemic that as of yesterday has afflicted 4.23 million of its people. In May, the Associated Press reported that only half of Americans would take a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available. Half.
Here in Canada, things aren’t quite as bad. In 2017, 94% of Canadians said they would vaccinate their children. By 2019 that had fallen to 83%. This is about vaccines in general and not specifically COVID-19. But it’s worrisome nonetheless because it strips of us any semblance of herd immunity.
Which brings me to a study released last Thursday in Toronto by the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and Canadian Blood Services. Actually, the study results aren’t complete, but the results of part of it so concerned the study’s sponsors that they decided to go public on its partial results. This rarely happens in the world of science. So when it does, we should pay heed.
The study found that between May 9 and June 8, fewer than 1 per cent of 10,000 samples of blood donors tested positive for antibodies. (The full sample of 37,800 blood donations for May and June will be revealed later this summer.)
As they noted: “Antibodies indicate past infection with SARS-CoV-2, and population studies like this one tell us how many people have likely been exposed to the virus.”
The point is, if we have more antibodies, we have more immunity from infection. And if more of us have more antibodies, we will enjoy the protection of the herd.
But it seems Canadians don’t have any of this. In other words, the vast majority of Canadians remain vulnerable to infection from COVID-19, whether they’ve had the disease or not. Besides, as other studies point out, even patients who have survived COVID-19 may have no immunity against a second infection.
What to do?
Be even more vigilant in the coming months than we’ve been in the past months, and pray that the vaccine comes sooner than later, and that enough of us will take it ….and that it actually works.
As The Economist recently noted: “You may have lost interest in the pandemic. It has not lost interest in you.”