Coronavirus

The Race to Create a Coronavirus Vaccine

How has this administration bungled its response to the coronavirus pandemic? Let us count the ways:

1) It dismantled the pandemic playbook left by the Obama administration, though epidemiologists have been saying for at least the last decade that viruses run amuck were coming.

2) Warned that a novel coronavirus was brewing, the administration stuck its head in the sand.

3) Too late, it closed the borders to flights from China, even though the virus had already spread to other parts of the world and slid easily into New York in record-setting numbers in January and February.

4) The coronavirus task force promised testing “like we’ve never seen” back in February; it’s October, and we still don’t test in high enough numbers.

5) Contact tracing has been problematic to nonexistent throughout the pandemic.

6) We spent far too long checking people who met only a specific set of criteria, while letting community infections spread across the states like California wildfires.

7) The Defense Production Act, which allows the president to compel manufacturers to pivot from building regular materials to creating supplies needed to fight a current crisis, was never put into play effectively. The gang of thieves in power in Washington, D.C., cared more about lining their pockets than providing protective equipment to essential workers. States were left to fend for themselves for medical supplies in high demand around the world.

8) Mask mandates were delayed—or nonexistent. Once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Surgeon General reversed course and announced that masks may save lives, the administration went out of its way to politicize them. People in large swaths of the country still refuse to wear face masks for reasons as varied as personal freedom to misinformation about carbon dioxide poisoning.

9) We locked down for six weeks without taking appropriate steps to squash this virus and allow folks to get back to the normal so many crave. In essence, we stayed home for no reason in the spring.

10) States reopened, at the president’s urging, though little had been done in most of them to flatten the curve.

11) At every turn, the president downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, though recorded interviews released in late summer show he knew from the start that it was deadly and had the potential to disrupt life in this country. Even now, with 8.6 million cases and counting, plus more than 226,000 dead Americans, he still refuses to take action, instead blaming China and saying we’re making remarkable progress and “the virus will disappear soon.”

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Don’t even get us started on the way the return to schools–both secondary schools and colleges–has been mismanaged in nearly all 50 states, and how efforts to protect health care professionals, first responders and people of color haven’t been any kind of priority.

Americans have been lied to, lost jobs with little financial cushion from the federal government (other countries have provided monthly cash stipends to their citizens; we saw a one-time paltry sum six months ago) and had our lives placed in jeopardy throughout nine months of this virus.

It’s no wonder talk of the race to a vaccine doesn’t find us rushing to the front of the line. A survey earlier this month found that overall, just 58 percent of the American public was willing to get vaccinated as soon as a vaccine is ready. Black Americans in the poll were far less interested in a coronavirus vaccine than white folks, with 43 percent of us saying we’d roll up our sleeves versus 59 percent of our white counterparts. These numbers suggest Americans are concerned the regulatory approval process for a COVID-19 vaccine has been politicized by the administration, and we fear what the current leadership pushes onto the public won’t be safe or effective.

Kizzmekia Corbett, a viral immunologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, tried to allay those fears at the Black Health Matters Fall Summit.

“The vaccine development process for COVID-19 (and vaccine development in general) is just that—a process,” Corbett said. “Vaccines that come out at the end of that process are vetted to ensure the general public is safe when receiving vaccines.”

During normal times, Corbett explained, vaccine development can take 10 to 15 years. But scientists have been doing coronavirus research for years.

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“When the MERS, another coronavirus, outbreak occurred [in 2012], we researched MERS and how to make a vaccine. From 2013 to 2019, we did extensive work on coronaviruses,” she said. “We came together December 31 [2019] when we suspected this might be an outbreak of a coronavirus. We’d already done the work that previously would’ve meant starting from scratch, and we moved very quickly to phase 1 clinical trials.”

This level of knowledge and collaboration enables researchers to shorten the clinical trial process. There are currently multiple vaccines in phase 3 clinical trials, with 30,000 to 40,000 people in each of these trials. “As we learn more at each phase of testing, we’re able to give results to FDA and access for approval while we’re still working on the next phase. There is a system in place that is ensuring the safety of the vaccine that comes out of the clinical trials,” Corbett said. “Although you hear ‘Operation Warp Speed,’ we’re not taking any short cuts.”

But Corbett understands the reluctance, particularly among the Black community.

“One of the things that makes our community hesitant is we see people who don’t look like us are telling us we need to be the first people to get this vaccine,” she said. “The history behind medical institutions and medical experiments taking advantage of black people makes us have some very embedded hesitancies.”

She shared that she has faced accusations of being put in place to be the face to make sure black people got the vaccine. “That is simply not true,” Corbett said. “I’ve been doing this work since I was 16. I chose to be the face of what is my intellectual property because it’s important not just for people from this side, but also for young Black people to understand that being a scientist is attainable and possible.

“There are pressures from multiple directions on this vaccine development. The FDA is doing an amazing job of making sure this vaccine is deemed safe and efficacious at the end of the day. Every single piece of data we generate can be picked apart. Safety protocols have been vetted. The safety of people is most important.” 

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