Better to build trust than to be first when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine

As many as half of all Americans say they won’t get a coronavirus vaccine. If we hope to end this deadly pandemic, an aggressive public education campaign stressing the safety of vaccination is essential.

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A nurse prepares a shot to be administered as part of a study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc. that the University of Illinois at Chicago is taking part in.

A nurse last month prepares a shot to be administered as part of a study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc.

Hans Pennink / AP

Early next year, scientists tell us, Americans can expect to hear that a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 soon will be available.

When that happens — and the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said he is cautiously optimistic on the timeline for 2021 — it will be the best news possible for our pandemic-weary country.

All of us are waiting for a breakthrough that will allow daily life to return to some semblance of normal once again: to go back to movies, ball games and concerts or host dinner parties without fear of catching or spreading the coronavirus.

Life may not be completely “normal” for a long time, but a reliable vaccine is essential to the fight. Masks and social distancing can do only so much. “A vaccine will be the strongest thing we have against the disease,” as Dr. Karen Krueger of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine told us.

Chicago plays key role

Chicagoans can be proud that our city is already playing a key role in the vaccine race. Thousands of people have signed up as potential volunteers for clinical trials at Northwestern and the University of Illinois at Chicago of two separate vaccines, expected to begin later this month.

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Both vaccines have shown promising results in earlier testing and have reached Phase 3, the final stage of testing during which a vaccine is administered to thousands of volunteers nationwide before it can be approved, potentially, by the Food and Drug Administration.

The UIC trial involves a vaccine developed by the biotech giant Moderna, which on Tuesday reached a $1.5 billion deal with the Trump administration to produce 100 million doses. Northwestern will test a vaccine developed by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

Altogether, more than 165 vaccines are in various stages of development worldwide, with 30 now undergoing human trials.

“I’m very optimistic, with all these vaccines going into trials, that something will be effective,” UIC’s Dr. Richard M. Novak, who will head the trials there, told us.

Americans wary

But even the most effective vaccine will be useless if too few people decide to get the shot. And millions of us — from 25% to 50% of all Americans, according to several surveys conducted since May — have already decided against it.

One survey found an especially troubling statistic: African Americans, who are at a particularly high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, still were far more likely than whites or Hispanics to report that they wouldn’t get vaccinated.

Clearly, America needs a public education campaign to build confidence in a vaccine, especially among Black Americans. We hold out little hope that the Trump administration will see the need — yet another on a long list of reasons to vote Donald Trump out in November.

“We’ve got to change our government,” Novak said. “Get someone in charge who listens to science and is able to put forth a consistent effort against misinformation.”

No amount of education, we fear, will convince the strident anti-vaccine movement. They don’t listen to scientists any more than Trump does.

But a smart, well-planned campaign that outlines the rigorous steps required to approve any vaccine — and the science behind vaccines in general — could go a long way toward convincing others who are willing to listen and learn.

A campaign could reach those like this 56-year-old woman who told pollsters: “I am not an anti-vaxxer. [But] to get a COVID-19 vaccine within a year or two ... causes me to fear that it won’t be widely tested as to side effects.”

So Americans need to know this: We are not Russia.

Emphasizing safety over speed

In its rush to be “first” with a COVID-19 vaccine, President Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday that Russia will begin distributing an unproven vaccine this fall, before large-scale human trials are complete.

Scientists widely condemn the move as “reckless.”

“I realize this is a pandemic,” Northwestern’s Krueger said, “But I don’t think that’s a reason to skip over what we know is safe.”

Krueger and other experts insist that the FDA’s standards and the vaccine approval process overall will not allow the same to happen here.

Rushing the process, at any rate, would be self-defeating. Imagine releasing an unproven vaccine too early — and seeing thousands of people suffer severe unexpected side effects.

“We’re going by the same process and standard we would normally,” Krueger said.

To build public trust, better safe than first.

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