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When will a COVID-19 vaccine be available and you should be confident it is safe?

Scientists are under pressure to deliver a vaccine soon. When can we expect it and will it be safe?
Emilija Manevska / Getty

The unprecedented speed with which medical science is developing a COVID-19 vaccine is one of the most inspiring stories in this historical chapter. Vaccine candidates emerged just weeks after scientists identified SARS-CoV-2 and sequenced its genetic code. University and Big Pharma have formed teams to develop vaccine candidates in a short time. But just as quickly, the search for a vaccine has become a political issue, and the sad result is that while the chances of an effective vaccine increase, so too does public distrust.

It’s a shame, because the medical and scientific task of developing a COVID-19 vaccine isn’t the only key ingredient for a successful vaccination campaign. Public consent is essential, because a vaccine is only effective when people agree to be injected. The political spectacle surrounding the vaccine efforts is undermining public confidence. Mixed messages that look set to continue for the next two months of the presidential campaign will complicate communication efforts by doctors and public health officials, just as the threat of an autumn wave of infections approaches.

The race for a vaccine took shape early on. By July, Moderna, the Massachusetts pharmaceutical company, transferred the vaccine candidate it was developing with nearly $ 1 billion from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) into Phase 3 clinical trials. Phase 3 is the gold standard in medicine, the final stage of testing a new vaccine must be completed before the Food and Drug Administration decides whether its benefits are large enough and its risks small enough to warrant releasing millions, perhaps billions, of other healthy people . To persuade the FDA and the rest of the medical community, Moderna will enroll 30,000 people, give some of them the vaccine and the rest a placebo, and wait until 150 of them come with COVID-19.

Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute wasn’t far behind Moderna in the race to be the first to come out with a vaccine. But in August, as Moderna was beginning the vast logistical operation of enrolling participants for its trial, Russia decided to authorize the use of its vaccine even though it had not yet published the results of its phase 1 and 2 trials. which are used to collect toxicity and efficacy data from a small number of closely monitored participants. Russia was releasing a vaccine that had only been tested on 76 people.

Scientists denounced the move as “reckless”, “foolish”, “immoral” and potentially “disastrous”. If the vaccine proves dangerous or ineffective, it could undermine public confidence in vaccines around the world, at a time when persuading people to accept vaccination is important to containing COVID-19.

Undaunted by Russia’s example – or perhaps encouraged by it – President Trump earlier this month began hinting that the United States could authorize its own vaccine before the November 3 election. “We remain on track to deliver a vaccine before the end of the year and possibly even before November 1,” he said at a news conference. “We think we can probably have it during the month of October.” He repeated the statement.

The answer came from many directions. Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were quick to attack Trump for mixing politics and science. “I wouldn’t trust Donald Trump and he should be a credible source of information talking about the effectiveness and reliability of whatever he’s talking about,” Harris told CNN. Scientists also objected. Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said a vaccine before the end of the year “is not impossible” but “unlikely”. Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, told senators in a hearing that any decision to release a vaccine would be made on a scientific basis. “I just hope Americans choose to get the information they need from scientists and not from politicians,” he said.