When the pandemic was just emerging from its infancy and we were just beginning to think about social distancing, I was sitting around enjoying an adult beverage and some gluten free (not my choice) snacks with some friends. A retired nurse who had just celebrated her 80th birthday said, “I can’t wait until they’ve developed a vaccine.” A former electrical engineer sitting just short of 2 meters to her left responded, “Don’t save me a place near the front of the line for something that is being developed in a program called Warp Speed.”
How do you feel about the potential SARS-CoV-2 vaccine? Are you going to roll up your sleeve as soon as the vaccine becomes available in your community? What are you going to suggest to your patients, your children? I suspect many of you will answer, “It depends.”
Will it make any difference to you which biochemical-immune-bending strategy is being used to make the vaccine? All of them will probably be the result of a clever sounding but novel technique, all of them with a track record that is measured in months and not years. Will you be swayed by how large the trials were? Or how long the follow-up lasted? How effective must the vaccine be to convince you that it is worth receiving or recommending? Do you have the tools and experience to make a decision like that? I know I don’t. And should you and I even be put in a position to make that decision?
In the past, you and I may have relied on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for advice. But given the somewhat murky and stormy relationship between the CDC and the president, the vaccine recommendation may be issued by the White House and not the CDC.
For those of us who were practicing medicine during the Swine Flu fiasco of 1976, the pace and the politics surrounding the development of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine has a discomforting déjà vu quality about it. The fact that like this year 1976 was an election year that infused the development process with a sense of urgency above and beyond any of the concerns about the pandemic that never happened. Although causality was never proven, there was a surge in Guillain-Barré syndrome cases that had been linked temporally to the vaccine.
Of course, our pandemic is real, and it would be imprudent to wait a year or more to watch for long-term vaccine sequelae. However, I am more than a little concerned that fast tracking the development process may result in unfortunate consequences in the short term that could have been avoided with a more measured approach to trialing the vaccines.
The sad reality is that as a nation we tend to be impatient. We are drawn to quick fixes that come in a vial or a capsule. We are learning that simple measures like mask wearing and social distancing can make a difference in slowing the spread of the virus. It would be tragic to rush a vaccine into production that at best turns out to simply be an expensive alternative to the measures that we know work or at worst injures more of us than it saves.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].