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What good is a vaccine if Americans won't roll up their sleeves?

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen talks to Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to "Operation Warp Speed," the federal government's Covid-19 vaccine program, about when Americans can expect a vaccine to be available and how effective it could be.

Posted: Jul 31, 2020 7:13 AM
Updated: Aug 1, 2020 8:45 PM


A doctor in Texas once told me that a woman walked into a pediatrician's office in the fall of 2014 and said: 'Give my daughter the Ebola vaccine.' The biggest Ebola epidemic in history was spreading across West Africa and a man infected with the virus had recently traveled to Dallas.

'There is no vaccine for Ebola,' the pediatrician said (the first US Food and Drug Administration-approved Ebola vaccine was announced in December 2019). 'But it is flu season and I can give your daughter the flu vaccine.' The mother scoffed and said, 'Flu vaccine? I don't believe in those things!' before storming out of the doctor's office.

Humans struggle to weigh risk. The flu kills as many as 60,000 Americans a year. But it was fears of an Ebola epidemic in 2014 that forced some schools and businesses to shut, despite the fact that a total of two people died from the virus in the US.

This time around, the new coronavirus that causes Covid-19 has infected 4.5 million people in the US, killed more than 150,000 Americans, and turned our world into disarray. Amid the anxiety and uncertainty, we're forced to make crucial decisions about our health. Should we wear face masks? Should we visit our elderly family members? Should we dine out? And perhaps one day, we'll ask ourselves: Should we be vaccinated?

While a safe and effective vaccine is our best hope for ending this pandemic, only half of Americans said they would roll up their sleeves to get vaccinated, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted in May. Around 1 in 3 were not sure if they would get vaccinated, while 20% said they would flat out refuse.

Scientists might be wowed by the speed of scientific progress, but a breakthrough will mean little if only half the population ends up getting vaccinated. Some Americans might be rightfully wondering: If it usually takes a decade or longer to develop a vaccine, how are scientists condensing this process down to a year? How can the public be sure that corners are not being cut and safety is not being compromised? And could the President — in an attempt to woo voters in an election year — spin his own 'October Surprise' and grant emergency approval of a vaccine that has not been through rigorous safety tests?

While researchers are racing to develop a vaccine, public health officials should be working concurrently on ways to ease these fears. Because transparency is key to building public trust, here's what should be explained about the accelerated vaccine development process.

How vaccine scientists are working at record speed

Vaccine development is a multi-step process that takes a hopeful vaccine candidate tested in a lab to clinical trials in people. The first two phases of human testing focus on studying safety and optimal dosing. Phase 3 trials look at how effective the vaccine is at preventing infection or lessening disease severity.

Some scientists were already working on vaccines for the coronaviruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). This gave them a head start when it came to tackling the new coronavirus — which turns out to be very similar to the virus that caused the SARS epidemic in 2002. In fact, the spike protein on the surface of the new coronavirus — the part of the virus that latches on to our cells — is 75% similar to the SARS coronavirus.

Some scientists, such as those at the University of Oxford, are turning to trusted vaccine technology that has been used for years. This includes using a weakened virus (like a common cold virus that typically infects chimpanzees) to introduce a fragment of the new coronavirus. The immune system recognizes the new virus and develops an immune response that could protect against future infection.

Other scientists are turning to much newer vaccine technology. Instead of using parts of the virus's proteins or any weakened viruses, they are putting small parts of the coronavirus genetic code inside microscopic fat particles. The body reads the DNA or RNA and makes small fragments of the virus, which the immune system learns to recognize before building antibodies. This approach saves time by doing away with the need to grow viruses to include in the vaccine. The downside of this approach is that DNA and messenger RNA vaccines have not been approved before, which means the FDA could take longer to assess whether these candidates can go to market.

To further speed up testing, different phases of vaccine trials are being conducted in parallel instead of sequentially. And scientists are collaborating like never before. More than 165 groups around the world are focused on the same virus at the same time, sharing information that could speed up vaccine discovery. Governments and organizations that fund vaccine science have also fast-tracked financing and study approval processes that typically take years.

How vaccine safety is being studied

A vaccine that causes jarring headaches, severe muscle aches, or more serious side effects is unlikely to be popular, even if it protects against an illness like Covid-19.

Information learned at each stage of vaccine testing is shared publicly in peer-reviewed journals so that scientists around the world can track -- and criticize -- vaccine trials. (One of the concerns about Russia's recent announcement that an 'approved vaccine' would be available by August 10 is that data from Phase 1 and 2 safety trials has not been shared.) While vaccine trials are ongoing, data monitoring boards review the results so that any red flags are spotted quickly and a trial can be stopped, if necessary.

Checking for safety doesn't end when a vaccine makes it through Phase 3 trials. Safety monitoring continues as the vaccine is used by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Doctors can collect information on side effects and report new findings to public health authorities through a vaccine safety surveillance program run by the FDA and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Safety considerations are key, especially as scientists work at record speed. If a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available, millions of people will face an important decision: Take a vaccine that was developed possibly faster than any other in history, or remain vulnerable to a disease that can cause severe illness and even death.

Like the mother in the Texas pediatrician's office, that choice requires weighing the potential risks while considering personal beliefs and commitment to public health. But it's not a choice we should have to make alone. Researchers, government officials, and initiatives like Operation Warp Speed must help the public make these decisions by peeling back the curtain on vaccine development and offering full transparency.

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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 101496

Reported Deaths: 1821
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson13463261
Mobile10671216
Montgomery6955153
Madison551035
Tuscaloosa432780
Unassigned398568
Baldwin371029
Shelby336137
Marshall319938
Lee272447
Morgan242520
Etowah219034
DeKalb185214
Calhoun182819
Elmore176739
Walker154865
Houston145013
Russell13912
Limestone137813
St. Clair137520
Dallas134725
Franklin130822
Cullman123812
Colbert122518
Lauderdale120320
Autauga118822
Escambia109417
Jackson10724
Talladega106914
Tallapoosa87679
Dale85029
Chambers84838
Chilton8279
Blount8255
Clarke82110
Coffee7796
Butler77336
Covington74621
Pike7167
Marion58726
Barbour5816
Lowndes57524
Marengo56817
Bullock49211
Hale48826
Winston45711
Bibb4535
Washington44913
Perry4464
Wilcox43610
Monroe4246
Pickens41110
Randolph40311
Conecuh39410
Sumter36618
Lawrence3563
Macon34114
Crenshaw3318
Choctaw28912
Cherokee2798
Clay2775
Geneva2652
Henry2643
Greene25311
Lamar2302
Fayette2235
Cleburne1291
Coosa1053
Out of AL00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 126393

Reported Deaths: 1289
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby23785315
Davidson21044221
Rutherford671956
Hamilton640855
Knox485240
Williamson365626
Sumner350173
Unassigned31243
Out of TN290418
Wilson237423
Montgomery201514
Bradley201315
Sevier19169
Putnam184018
Robertson158720
Trousdale15836
Hamblen142515
Washington13522
Blount133315
Maury12998
Madison122221
Tipton121710
Sullivan107515
Hardeman96818
Bedford94011
Macon87013
Lake7960
Loudon7743
Gibson7498
Dickson7183
Fayette7188
Bledsoe7172
Anderson7116
Dyer6798
Henderson6262
Cheatham6079
Obion5984
Jefferson5964
Lawrence5937
Coffee5733
McMinn56720
Carter5646
Rhea5472
Warren5454
Greene5249
Lauderdale5239
Haywood5227
Weakley5034
Hawkins50010
Roane4962
Hardin4868
Cocke4855
Cumberland4836
Smith4614
Monroe4589
McNairy3976
Giles39113
DeKalb3691
Franklin3434
Carroll3415
Lincoln3201
Marshall3104
White3105
Johnson3070
Henry3030
Claiborne2810
Crockett2775
Hickman2760
Campbell2571
Chester2302
Marion2305
Wayne2302
Overton2211
Decatur2183
Polk2134
Grainger2060
Unicoi1750
Union1650
Benton1611
Cannon1570
Humphreys1313
Jackson1311
Morgan1301
Scott1242
Grundy1222
Sequatchie1131
Meigs1090
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Hancock822
Stewart790
Lewis761
Moore640
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