A Scientist in the House
It's generally very nice to have a scientist in the house! They're handy to have around when you need something explained or translated, for example. They tend to keep their heads in pressure situations, being super logical and rational about most things and all. They tend to think and work very methodically and with a more even-keeled, wait-and-see approach, which keeps them from making rash decisions. Mine has the added benefit of being a human calculator, which is also incredibly convenient. (I will say that it's not all rainbows and lollipops, though. Because that wall of logic? Yeah. That can be very frustrating to knock up against. Just sayin.)
Anyway. Having a pharmaceutical scientist in the house during a pandemic has been . . . priceless.
So I'm going to share mine with you today.
With all the vaccine development news this year, Tom has been getting a lot of questions from friends and family members . . . about drug development and approval processes, about science, about trusting the vaccine. He's prepared a written response to address those questions, and I thought you might like to read it. Please know: this is an opinion piece. He's not giving medical advice here! (Not that kind of doctor.) I just thought it might be interesting for you to read what a pharmaceutical scientist has to say about the vaccine.
So. Here you go.
What my scientist has to say!
Take it away, Tom. . .
Some in my family asked to provide my view of vaccines for COVID 19. Full disclosure: I’ve never worked with “biologics” - monoclonal antibodies, peptides, or vaccines. So, vaccines are not my area of expertise. Nevertheless, I did work 29 years in big pharma in what is known as “small molecules” and that has given me some perspective on the industry as a whole. Some thoughts:
- I trust science and I recommend that others do too. Science is self-correcting; it proposes ideas, tests them using experiments and measurable data, then challenges these ideas again. Data is key and it largely factors out the influence of individuals and subjectivity. The community of scientists examines data and judges the results based on merit. This challenge and check is repeated and the results are constantly refined. It’s about as trustworthy a system as you can get when people are involved. Trust it.
- Scientists generally are concerned with finding the elusive truth. For the most part that is viewed as a sacred duty - more important than prestige and money and even recognition. Integrity and reputation are everything. It’s OK to be wrong, but not to cheat. There are good scientists and poor scientists, but not many dishonest scientists. They get outed and ousted. Or move to management.
- Consequently, science does not readily lend itself to supporting a conspiracy. You may be able to buy off one scientist, but not an entire community. Eventually, the truth comes out.
- Science, especially biological science branches, have advanced amazingly in recent years. The fact that multiple COVID 19 vaccines are nearly approved is an amazing feat of science. The virus didn’t even exist until a year ago. The viral genome, the key first step in developing an effective vaccine, was known in January, 2020 – amazingly fast. This technology only became available in the late ‘90s and used to take years to complete. Now it’s done in weeks or days.
- Developing a vaccine also used to take years, but new technologies have greatly accelerated the process. This technology also allows for a diversity of approaches to a vaccine – different targets and different ways to get it into our systems – more shots (no pun intended) on goal, which improves the chances of getting one or more effective treatments.
- Clinical studies to demonstrate safety (no really bad effects) and efficacy (that it works) still take a long time and tons of money. Fortunately, the big companies with deep pockets invested heavily from the start as did smaller companies with the help of big federal money. I think Operation Warp Speed was a brilliant and totally appropriate move that is paying off.
- There have been a lot of politics surrounding the pandemic and the development of treatments including vaccines. Anti-vax sentiment; concerns about corners being cut in development, testing, or review to accelerate availability (companies, the administration, and/or FDA); impact of timing on the election; potential conflicts of interest based on political pressure or funding. Complicated and worrisome. Yet through it all, I have confidence that the vaccines have been developed, tested, and checked appropriately. Why?
- The companies vowed publicly not to cut corners and let the science guide them - they seem to have acted accordingly. They recognized that anything less would eventually become known and could undermine confidence in the company, the system, and/or the vaccines. In at least one case, Pfizer refused the warp speed funding for development (though they did make a big deal for sales if successful) reportedly to help ensure independent evaluation without undue influence from the administration.
- Despite political pressure to lower standards or otherwise accelerate the approval process, FDA has held steady on the vaccines e.g. insisting on at least 70% efficacy, independent expert advisory review panels, and following accepted protocols.
- The leading companies ran really large clinical studies and seemingly ran them right. The high infection rates actually helped accelerate the studies. Preliminary results are incredibly promising.
- Overall, everything I’ve seen on the development of COVID vaccines gives me confidence in the science, the industry, and the review system.
- If I were high-risk, say a front line medical worker, I would absolutely take the vaccine right away. No question. Sign me up. I am fully pro-vax and am willing to bet on the vaccine helping me avoid being infected. It’s a risk-reward question, and I’m willing to take the extremely low risks of the vaccine over the far greater risk of the virus.
- That said, I’m in a lower risk category (under 65, not a healthcare or other “essential” worker, keeping a low exposure profile) and won’t be in the early rounds of vaccine recipients. That’s fine with me because, despite large clinical studies (tens of thousands of people) and appropriate development and review, there is always a small risk that unforeseen problems may emerge when millions receive the treatment. Low incidence side effects, differences between actual and projected efficacy, actual duration of immunity, etc. These are early days and there’s likely more to learn about the virus and the vaccines. By the time I get the vaccine, there will be far more practical knowledge. Again, risk-reward.
So, in a nutshell:
- Although these vaccines are using relatively new technology, and have been developed extremely quickly, I trust the science and the process.
- From everything I’ve read, the leading companies and the FDA have done a good job in not bowing to various pressures and are doing things the right way.
- My view of the risk-reward equation: the virus is much more dangerous than the vaccine. Not even close.
- I will certainly get the vaccine when I can (provided there are no bad surprises once it gets into wide distribution).
I hope you found Tom's words helpful! It really is nice . . . to have a scientist in the house!