Posted on Sep 22, 2020
Posts like this on social media reflect growing public anxiety about vaccine research.
With the UK Prime Minister due to address the UK this evening (Tuesday 22nd September) the long suffering British public is braced for further restrictions in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Britain is currently experiencing high levels of coronavirus infections, but their political leader appears to have lost the trust of his citizens due to mishandling of the pandemic.
The alarming spike in infections and government restrictions on personal freedoms are fuelling hopes that researchers will deliver a vaccine which will help to restore normality to their lives. But whilst the political pressure is high to deliver an effective vaccine quickly, the public is still deeply sceptical of the trustworthiness of government messaging, and for this reason may be reluctant to take up a vaccine even when it becomes available because they still need to be persuaded of its safety. The UK has a history of campaigners who object to immunisation programmes, and the fact that animals have been used on some research programmes for coronavirus vaccines may deter some from making use of them.
According to an article published in the New York Times on Saturday 19th September, recent opinion polls show that Americans could be wary of accepting a coronavirus vaccine. People are generally worried that public expectations for government to find a vaccine quickly might result in the authorities cutting corners and reducing the usual checks and safeguards in order to release an unproven or unsafe vaccine as quickly as possible.
The vaccine currently leading the competition is AZD1222 which was co-invented by Vaccitech and the University of Oxford, (of which Prime Minister Johnson is an Alumnus). It uses a replication-deficient chimpanzee viral vector based on a weakened version of a common cold virus (adenovirus) that causes infections in chimpanzees and contains the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spike protein. After vaccination, the surface spike protein is produced, priming the immune system to attack the SARS-CoV-2 virus if it later infects the body.
But two participants in the human trials which started in April became seriously ill after receiving the experimental vaccine in Britain. This led to a review process requiring the human trials of the vaccine to be paused twice to allow a review of safety data. Surprisingly the company did not provide any public details about the neurological illnesses of the two participants, both women. Although the cases led the company to halt its trials, AstraZeneca was reluctant to disclose detailed medical information about them.
The responsible UK committee has now concluded its investigations and recommended that trials in the UK are safe to resume. But this decision has been criticised by experts who argue that UK regulators have failed to supply a rationale for resuming the trials. The F.D.A. has so far not allowed the company to restart trials in the United States.
After media pressure, AstraZeneca publicly revealed on Saturday further details of its coronavirus vaccine trials, in a detailed “protocol” which sets out the company’s blueprint and strategy for the trials. But the communications around this are proving to be a very difficult balancing act. On the one hand the company must maintain sufficient confidentiality to protect the integrity of their research, but on the other hand they also need to maintain credibility and the support of public opinion if there is to be a successful roll-out of the vaccine for mass immunisation.
There are also huge international competition issues at stake, and the difficulties surrounding communications for AstraZeneca’s AZD1222 are not helped by the fact that the company has exceptionally sought liability waivers for the vaccine, in order that AstraZeneca will not be held liable for any potential side effects so that the company will be protected from future claims of liability. This request from the company has been received with some surprise by health and medical law experts in Europe.
In the weeks ahead as future developments with the pandemic unfold, the transparency of corporate communications regarding new vaccines, and winning public trust with clear and accurate data about the pros and cons of the different competing vaccines will become increasingly important.
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