It’s a familiar cinematic trope: The hero (or in some cases, the poor sucker in the wrong place at the wrong time) is trying to remain calm as the clock conspicuously ticks down. The ominous music builds. Sweat beads down his face, as his shaking hands clutch a pair of wire cutters and he ponders the familiar conundrum: “Which wire do I cut?”
Any misstep, of course, would end in catastrophe.
As I explored the topic of vaccine skepticism for this month’s cover story, I couldn’t help but picture the wire cutters in the hands of the pharma industry. While it’s true that public health campaigns fall largely under the purview of government, pharma has a lot riding on the success of COVID-19 vaccines. Beyond the time and money drugmakers have poured into vaccine development, public health, industry reputation and future acceptance of vaccines hang in the balance.
According to numerous polls, public trust is waning — and the clock is ticking. As several late-stage trials edge towards the finish line, it’s now or never when it comes to convincing the majority of Americans that COVID-19 vaccines are safe.
But much like defusing a bomb, hesitation is not the only mistake to be made. Rushing a vaccine that ends up being ineffective or unsafe is the equivalent of hastily cutting the wrong colored wire…a move that could be lethal for vaccine confidence and even more literally, people.
During a time when we can’t possibly use the term “unprecedented” enough, a different type of vaccine skepticism has emerged. Instead of pharma’s familiar foe — the fervent anti-vaxxer watching “Plandemic” on repeat and refusing to believe in science — today’s skepticism is penetrating the circles of those who have historically supported vaccination.
Why would people who typically trust vaccines refuse one at a time when the need is so urgent? The answer is a complicated mess of tangled wires.
For some, the idea of warp speed vaccine development — cutting a decade-long timeline down to less than a year — generates fear that vital safety steps will be skipped. For others, the dangerous collision of politics and science that has characterized much of this pandemic has polarized their views on vaccines. President Trump, touting his administration’s success, has repeatedly promised that the American people will have a vaccine before Nov. 3., even though every health official in the country seems to disagree with this possibility. Drugmakers — some more vocally than others — have insisted that clinical trials aren’t designed to follow the U.S. election timeline.
Add to that, the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization, an authority granted to the agency specifically for use in times of public health emergencies, has been dragged into the political war zone, bringing the agency’s credibility with it.
Pharma is faced with a near impossible situation when it comes to contributing to the national dialogue about vaccines: push too hard and they seem opportunistic, stay quiet and they lose control of the narrative on vaccine safety. We have seen historic pledges, open letters, op-eds and candid interviews, as the pharma industry and public health agencies alike struggle to get the voice of science to rise above the noise.
It is my opinion that drugmakers have stepped up and emerged stronger than ever. The pandemic has birthed a more transparent pharma industry. One that is open about its clinical trial process. One that is willing to explain the intricacies of drug development to the public. One where CEOs speak up and speak out.
Rarely in movies do the bombs explode. In the nick of time, the hero prevails. And in this case I think pharma, backed by science, will save the day.