I am not an expert on vaccines. My internship related to datatypes, not vaccines. But in the biggest global health crisis of this century, I felt lucky to have a foot in two communities with different attitudes about the coronavirus vaccine. On one hand, I heard from my basic biology lab at Duke and learned about vaccine manufacturing/studies through the Margolis Center for health policy, but these connections were remote. In my “real” life, I am part of a family with mixed political views, thus mixed views on the pandemic.
I turn on the radio to listen to governor DeWine at 2:00 and believe we must “get through this together” while imagining a definitive end to the pandemic. But then I reach back for my laptop and my scientific attitude rushes back and I qualify those hopes. I think about the lengthy vaccine development/manufacturing process and the low bar for the effectiveness of this vaccine.
The attitude toward the vaccine in my home community and my professional community differ. My phone pings and a text from my mom reads: “Dr. Fauci says there will be a vaccine by Spring, maybe even by the end of the year!” I google it. He actually says, “by the end of the year, we may know if we have a vaccine that is safe and effective.” I focus on the “may” and the fact that the existence of a vaccine doesn’t mean we’ll be able to get it to people for another couple of months. Besides, a vaccine does not mean an end to this pandemic. It might make things worse. Then, I pause and think, “this is Fauci, he knows so much more than I do, why am I so cynical?”
I am nervous for two reasons. The reality of the vaccine may disappoint the general public or, even worse, the vaccine will fail or cause side-effects. Back in March as states were shutting down, the attitude seemed to be “let’s close down now and make the sacrifices. Then, by May, we’ll be on the road to normal.” May came and my hometown attempted to return to normal. My once-masked community relaxed and paid the price for it. Days after the mandatory masking policy for employees expired in Ohio, I picked up local takeout. Restaurant employees seemed surprised when asked why they chose not to wear masks responding “Oh? That’s not a thing we do.”
What happens when a vaccine arrives? Some won’t believe in it and others will breathe a sigh of relief without fear that their breath will kill someone. But that may not be our reality. The virus may mutate and it will be a continual battle, like the flu. Or the vaccine may not offer full protection to all people. Especially in the early days of the vaccine, we will still need to be cautious. I hope ‘vaxx parties” don’t start trending.
But my gut hesitation originates not just from reading, but from the attitude my biology & health policy community. There’s no “science will save the day” talk. Instead, I sense a fear that this failure may tarnish trust in science for an entire generation. It feels like we are holding our breath, bracing ourselves for the large-scale trauma that a vaccine letdown may cause.
Despite this fear, so many scientists work nonstop to make an effective vaccine a reality. We must listen to what they say about the vaccine, listen for when they say “may,” or “incomplete protection” and adjust our expectations. Science may bring us out of quarantine, but, like governor DeWine says, “we have to keep battling it.”