By Wade Smith, MD, PhD, FNCS, President, NCS Board of Directors, Professor of Neurology, UCSF; and Sharon C. Allen, NCS Executive Director
As we end 2020, we open a new year with much anticipation for better world health. Many of you have qualified as Level 1A priority for COVID-19 vaccination and have already received your first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, and many others will receive it shortly. This historic event marks an incredible collaboration of science and government to arrive at a novel vaccine within nine months of initiation. Prior U.S. vaccination processes have been hampered by less effective vaccines for influenza, false concerns over thimerosal-induced autism, high litigation risk to companies who would dare make vaccines, a strong anti-vaccination movement that is responsible for a recent rise in rubella infections, and healthcare worker deaths in Africa for Ebola vaccinations. This time, novel RNA-based vaccines were developed and tested at unprecedented speed, providing over 94% effectiveness in 80,000 subjects tested in high-quality randomized testing.
The motivation of a pandemic with 2–5% case mortality rate drove this effort, and the novel government subsidy for the process was the enabler. In former years, pharmaceutical companies sought congressional protection against legal claims of vaccine-related side effects. This legislation passed to prevent the wholesale exit of all vaccine production in U.S. companies by passing the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 and was upheld by a Supreme Court decision in 1988 by Justice Scalia. The creation of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines was fueled by subsidies of $4.1 billion and $3.15 billion, respectively, by your tax dollars. Not only did this focus company efforts to design the vaccine, it allowed for concomitant production of large quantities to be produced so that if the vaccines received FDA emergency authorization, vaccination could begin immediately. And now, many of you have received the first dose nearly 10 months since Dr. Li Wenliang died of the disease he tried to alert the world about. Operation warp speed was a very important accomplishment that will forever change world responses to future pandemics.
As your immune system is learning how to fight COVID-19, consider how regular citizens will now engage in the process. In order to get 75% herd immunity, we need to effectively vaccinate more than 270 million citizens of the U.S. and billions worldwide. In the U.S., the anti-vaccination movement has broad reach given the way information and conspiracy theories spread. Explaining that the vaccines have no virus in them may not help quell concerns. As citizens have a proven difficulty evaluating scientific fact and understating the veracity of what they read on social media platforms, widespread concerns of vaccine safety are expected. This may be even more true among Black Americans who have been systemically underserved in public health and still carry skepticism in medical science following Henrietta Lacks’ story with use of the HeLa cells, the Tuskegee Experiment and overall disparities of care. Recent racial tensions have hurt all underrepresented minorities’ trust in our government and trust that these vaccines will be safe.
As a leader of our medical society, I am asking for your help. I would like our members of all backgrounds, especially those who belong to underrepresented groups in the United States, to record a brief video message indicating how you have received the vaccine, and then encourage others in your demographic to get vaccinated. I’m also asking our international members to help spread the good news of the vaccines once they become available in their countries. If you are willing, please email NCS Executive Director Sharon Allen and me to tell us of your interest. I suspect it will take 15 minutes of your time. Please complete your video by Friday, Jan. 15, and we will have all of them ready for release in early February, which is when we anticipate the need. By setting examples, I think we can all do our part to end the pandemic sooner.