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Managing vaccine expectations key to fighting COVID-19

Researchers are continuing to look for a vaccine

Researchers are continuing to look for a vaccine for the deadly coronavirus. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Samara Heisz

All we need is a vaccine. One dose will end the COVID-19 plague, and it’s coming soon — really!

That’s the drumbeat from President Donald Trump and others pushing to reopen the nation’s economy and offering unrealistic timetables to get there, often contradicting public health experts.

While we all want this nightmare to end, the reality about a vaccine is quite different.

Developing the right drug, and putting it through necessary trials to see whether it is effective while measuring its negative ramifications, takes time, even on an accelerated schedule. Then it must be manufactured and distributed, and administered to hundreds of millions of people. Alleviating regulatory barriers helps but these are important, daunting steps.

It’s important to manage expectations, to understand that a vaccine isn’t imminent, and isn’t a cure-all. Political leaders who are suggesting a vaccine will be like a snap of the fingers risk losing our trust.

That’s especially concerning in light of troubling new estimates from a draft report labeled with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logo, that shows the toll from the coronavirus could reach 3,000 deaths a day, with new cases potentially increasing to as many as 200,000 per day, by June 1.

If the new modeling is accurate, that could surpass Trump’s admission Sunday that the death toll, now at more than 68,000, could reach 100,000.

Trump said Sunday he expects to have a vaccine by year’s end. But that’s not likely. Any vaccine is in research stages. On Long Island, Stony Brook-based Applied DNA Sciences announced Monday that its animal tests in mice showed its candidate produced neutralizing antibodies. Even Johnson & Johnson has said its first batches won’t be ready until early 2021. That’s if everything goes right. Human clinical trials on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine won’t start until September. They’re key to making sure any vaccine is ready, and won’t have unintended consequences. 

After a vaccine is in place, ramping up production will be key. But it doesn’t help that the United States is not participating in the World Health Organization’s global effort to coordinate and accelerate the development of and access to treatments and vaccines.

Also unclear is whether a singular coronavirus vaccine will be enough. Some researchers have said the vaccine might be a seasonal one — similar to the flu, where people have to be immunized annually.

Once a vaccine is approved, it’s likely to be met with doubts. The only way any vaccine will work is if the vast majority of the population believes in it and is willing to take it. So its availability must be matched with a public awareness campaign to encourage mass use.

But that moment is still far away.

Meanwhile, scientists make progress on finding therapeutic drugs to treat those who have COVID-19. There’s been promising news there, as the antiviral medication remdesivir was approved for emergency use.

We hope for more good news. But as we navigate a path forward, we must temper that hope. Otherwise, we may end up right back where we started.

— The editorial board

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