COVID-19 Vaccine Developers Promise Not To Rush Testing

12:15 minutes

a doctor giving a vaccine shot to a patient in the arm
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This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

Pharmaceutical companies are racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19. And there is a huge financial incentive to be the first to produce the first vaccine. But as President Donald Trump promises a vaccine “very soon,” nine of the biggest pharma companies signed a letter that pledged not to put profit—or politics—over sound science. 

Science writer Maggie Koerth talks about that letter, as well as bad news for a vaccine clinical trial, which paused this week after an unexplained illness in a participant.

Further Reading

  • Read more about the pledge in the New York Times.

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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. As you know, the pharmaceutical companies are racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19. And of course, there is a huge incentive to be the first one to make one. But nine of the biggest pharma companies signed a letter that pledged not to put profit or politics over sound science.

Maggie Koerth is here to fill us in on that story and other science headlines for the week. She is Senior Science Reporter at FiveThirtyEight based out of Minneapolis. Welcome back, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Hi. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Pharma companies usually don’t come all together to do this. What does this all mean?

MAGGIE KOERTH: So this is all part of a response to some statements that President Trump has been making, which have put the push to get a COVID-19 vaccine out as soon as possible into the realm of politics. So he has been claiming that a finished vaccine is coming very soon, possibly before election day, and also arguing that his opponents are the ones who have politicized the issue by not trusting him on that.

Meanwhile, the CDC has started laying out these scenarios to help states prepare for distributing vaccines as early as November. And these are timelines that a lot of scientists are calling unrealistic. So let’s just say that upfront. It is extremely unlikely that you will have a vaccine for COVID-19 before the election.

It’s even pretty unlikely that you’d be forced to decide whether a hypothetical vaccine released before the election was safe enough to try. That’s because the president’s statements have resulted in a lot of pushback from people in charge of this whole vaccine production process. It’s not just the pharmaceutical companies. It’s also the scientific head of Operation Warp Speed and the director of the National Institutes of Health.

So it is important, though, to point out that what they have said is not we will not release a vaccine before the election. Instead, the general message has been what you were saying, that speculating on timing is a pretty bad idea, and we are not going to release anything without thorough and complete safety testing. This timeline is going to be set by science, not by politics.

IRA FLATOW: So the letter says the companies are making a pledge to do this together.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. Yeah, they’re all banding together, and it includes the three companies whose vaccines are in stage III trials right now. Although part of the other news about vaccines this week is that these pledges around safety have turned out to be pretty important, because just a couple days after that pledge came out, one of those three companies announced that it was putting the brakes on its trial in order to re-evaluate safety because one participant had developed some serious neurological issues.

IRA FLATOW: And this is not necessarily bad news, is it, because clinical trials are supposed to test to see if people have reactions?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. This is exactly what clinical trials are supposed to do. We don’t even know whether this reaction had anything to do with the vaccine yet, but this is how this process works. If something serious pops up, we pause things. We go back and look through all of the data and try to make sure that we know that the safety is there.

IRA FLATOW: There’s good news and bad news about this, because the public is watching this, and they’re worrying about whether they should get an early vaccine. And now the company says, hey, we’re stopping putting out the vaccine, because we’re worried there is a possible problem with it. You could look at it either both ways. One is I’m not going to get that because it’s too early, or oh, good, they’re being responsible.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, exactly. It’s very much a thing where this is how we want the process to work. It’s working the way it’s supposed to. The problem is that the way it’s supposed to can also be unnerving, because it’s catching stuff.

IRA FLATOW: For your next story, there’s a lot of talk about public gatherings and the effects on COVID-19 infection rates. There was a study that looked at the big Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that happened in August, but there was so much misinterpretation of the results. Can you talk about that?

MAGGIE KOERTH: This entire pandemic, these papers that haven’t been peer-reviewed yet and getting into the media and then it becoming confusing about what’s being claimed and what’s not. So this particular paper was trying to estimate how many people got COVID because of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that happened in South Dakota last month. This was the largest public gathering that has happened since the pandemic began. It was almost 500,000 people.

Previous reports had clocked at least 260 cases, including one death in 11 different states, and that’s as of early last week. Epidemiologists, however, were already cautioning that that was probably an undercount. This week, these health economists tried to get a better estimate of the actual case count associated with the event. So their paper put the number at higher than 250,000 people, accounting for 19% of all the COVID cases diagnosed in the country between August 3 and September 3. That is obviously a pretty big difference between 260 and 250,000.

To get there, the researchers had tracked anonymized cell phone data from the Sturgis Rally back to where the attendees came from when they left. And the counties that contributed the most rally-goers, including the county that hosted it, also saw corresponding increases in COVID cases. The diagnoses increased between 7% and 12.5% more in those counties compared to counties that hadn’t sent anybody to Sturgis. So that’s where the background of this is coming from. It does have a basis in data. It’s not fiction made up from whole cloth, but it’s also not an exact science.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s move on to your next story, and this is about another COVID-19 model. This one looks at reopening universities and infection rates.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. So back in the spring, a couple of physicists agreed to spend their time helping the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign come up with its reopening plan, and that included using models to estimate how COVID might spread around the campus and what steps would be needed to prevent that. In May, they gave an interview with the American Physical Society that talked about how, well, while this work is important, epidemiological modeling just didn’t provide much of an intellectual thrill. It wasn’t complicated enough for them.

And if that sounds like the setup for a Greek tragedy, by gosh, it sure is. So here we are in September, and that same university had to put its entire student body under a lockdown, including confining them to the campus over Labor Day weekend. This is despite having one of the biggest and most highly touted testing and tracing programs in the country.

So what went wrong? Turns out that the physicists, while they did account for people not wearing masks and going to parties, failed to anticipate the breadth of how students would not follow the guidelines on COVID isolation. So what happened was they had students who weren’t isolating. They had students who would ignore health officials’ efforts to get in touch with them for contact tracing.

And they even had situations where students who had been recently diagnosed positive had actively hosted parties. And those were all things that were not factored into that model that the physicists put together. It’s just another example of how the math on this may be simple, but the humans are a mess.

IRA FLATOW: I can’t imagine that, not knowing that college students are going to go to parties and put that into your model.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, they had parties factored in there, but just gosh, I guess not enough.

IRA FLATOW: All right, and there are some stories of universities not quarantining their students on campus. They’re sending them home. I mean, how could you send all these students home to spread it to where they come from?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, that’s been generally, I think, agreed on as a bad idea. There have been a couple of cases, though, where students have actually been expelled from college for not following the rules on COVID. There was one university that, I think, sent home 11 kids and didn’t refund their tuition.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to something different, although it’s not a happier story, and I’m talking about the California wildfires having burned more than a million acres in the state. And the intensity of the fires have created a pumpkin-colored sky, I mean, if you’ve looked at the news reports of San Francisco and other places where it’s actually all orange all day long. And I understand that the fires are also creating their own weather phenomena.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. So Labor Day weekend in California had some of the highest temperatures ever recorded in this country. It was 121 degrees Fahrenheit in LA County last weekend. There are 25 major fires burning throughout the state. One of those fires, the Creek Fire, has created its own pyrocumulonimbus cloud. And basically what that is is a great big thunderhead produced by the fire itself because of the heat that the fire is generating and all of the moisture from the water that it’s evaporating.

All those things coming together into the air creates a storm. And this particular one was visible from space, and it’s all particularly bad news, considering the fact that other than the one fire that was lit by a gender reveal party gone wrong, most of these fires in California that are burning now were started by lightning. So you have the fire generating its own source of new fires. We don’t know if that’s actually happened with this particular case, but it’s creating the stuff that could cause another fire.

IRA FLATOW: All right, and your final story is a mind-cleansing one. It’s about the moon is rusting. That means we’re going to have to send a lot of WD-40 with the next Rovers or astronauts that we send to the moon.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. It’s going to get all squeaky up there. You’re going to have to lube it up. So it turns out that these researchers have discovered that the moon probably has other ways of getting these necessary ingredients.

So what they think is going on is that the oxygen is coming from the time each month during a full moon when the moon is sitting directly in the pointy tail on the backside of our planet’s protective magnetic field. So we have this field all the way around the planet that we think of as protecting us from this damaging radiation of the solar wind. But it kind of goes to a point on the side opposite the sun, and one of the things that it does as it’s doing that big wide cloud at the front, narrow point at the back, is that it’s picking up some traces bits of oxygen from our upper atmosphere and flowing them to this little point.

And so the researchers think that when the moon is lined up with that tail of the magnetosphere that it’s getting some of the oxygen molecules from our atmosphere. Then the water, meanwhile, is possibly coming from tiny molecules of water that are contained in this lunar dust cloud that’s constantly engulfing the moon. That dust cloud also contains bits of iron from rock. So there are times when that iron and the water in the dust cloud can combine with oxygen from the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and the result is rust that is not so mysterious after all.

IRA FLATOW: We all know that from leaving nails outside in the backyard. Thank you, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Maggie Koerth, a Senior Science Reporter at FiveThirtyEight. She’s based out of Minneapolis.

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