As the pandemic raged, scientists from around the world raced against the clock to develop promising COVID-19 vaccines. Now that the vaccines are developed, another hurdle awaits: vaccine hesitancy.
Vaccine hesitancy is not a new phenomenon, and various conspiracy theories tying vaccines to autism and other illnesses have been thoroughly debunked. However, many are concerned with the expeditious manner in which COVID-19 vaccines were developed, and question whether several months of study are enough to guarantee their safety. While such concerns are understandable, there are strong reasons why the new COVID-19 vaccines should merit the public’s approval.
Critics rightfully note that it has taken up to a decade to gain approval for vaccines in the past. However, much of this extended timeframe was due to administrative roadblocks, tedious paperwork and difficulty coordinating between various agencies such as academia, government bodies and the pharmaceutical industry.
With the new COVID-19 vaccines, these bureaucratic processes were coordinated and streamlined to cut down the time needed to bring them into the market. According to the Centres for Disease Control, all vaccines in development were required to meet the same comprehensive safety standards as before, and this process was not jeopardized to expedite the development timeline.
This was further substantiated by an independent review from the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, which found that efficiency in the regulatory process had not compromised the rigorous process of drug approval.
Another concern often raised is the first-time use of mRNA technology in vaccines. While the use of new technology can be disconcerting, the use of mRNA may not be as novel as we think. In fact, our understanding of mRNA and its role in vaccines is decades old, with the first examples of mRNA vaccine testing dating back to 1990. The safety profile of mRNA use in vaccines had been established over several years of rigorous study. Notably, mRNA vaccines have been successfully investigated in infectious diseases such as Zika, rabies, influenza and HIV as early as 2018.
Finally, few clinical trials of experimental drugs match the scale and rigour of the ones conducted for COVID-19 vaccines. For example, the recently approved Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine enrolled nearly 44,000 participants, making it the fourth largest clinical trial of an experimental drug in the history of the U.S. National Library of Medicine database. The results of the trials showed that it had a comparable safety profile to other vaccines regularly in use. To put this into perspective, the hepatitis A/B vaccine (Twinrix) enrolled just under 2,000 participants during its phase 3 trial, and has been administered safely and effectively around the world since 2001.
In a year full of lockdowns, mask policies and declining trust in media and scientific institutions, most people want nothing more than a return to their normal lives. The rapid pace of vaccine progress has been intimidating for many, and it is understandable to have questions about a novel drug that has been expedited for approval. But the COVID-19 vaccines provide the most effective path for a return to normalcy, and we should be reassured by the scope of testing these vaccines had met in order to gain regulatory approval.
Importantly, not everyone is eligible for vaccination, so each one of us must do our due diligence to receive the vaccine so that the most vulnerable members of our society can also enjoy a post-COVID-19 future.
As professionals in the health care field, we personally intend to receive our vaccine as soon as it becomes allocated to us, both for our patients and for the peace of mind of our families.
Sudarshan Bala is a graduating medical student at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University. Peter Zhang is a candidate in the combined Doctor of Pharmacy/MBA program at the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and the Rotman School of Management.