The success of a COVID-19 vaccine depends on effective scientific communication

One commonality amongst all reporting associated with the COVID-19 pandemic: “unprecedented.” Unprecedented circumstances, unprecedented symptomatology, unprecedented prevalence, and now, unprecedented velocity. “300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine for COVID-19 by January 2021”—the project: Operation Warp Speed.

On January 20, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States; fast forward to July 2020 and the National Institutes of Health announced the start of a Phase 3 clinical trial, evaluating the efficacy of an investigational vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

As we approach a prospective approval, Operation Warp Speed’s once elusive target appears tangible. Despite what many would describe as an extraordinary feat of science, the vaccine candidates have not been met with a congruous response from the public. Why is that?

Recent polls have indicated that less than 50 percent of people in the U.S. would willingly receive a COVID-19 vaccine. For perspective, Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that even if two-thirds of the U.S. population were inoculated, it would still fail to provide herd immunity. Previous vaccine development timescales are measured in durations magnitudes larger than mere months. When vaccines which took 15 to 20 years to develop are met with contempt, what will those same individuals say about this vaccine? In fact, what sensible individual would not question the legitimacy of a vaccine under a development process touted to be traveling at superluminal velocity?

If our goal is to ensure the public will be comfortable being inoculated once a safe and effective vaccine is approved, we need to adjust our narrative; otherwise, we should not be surprised when individuals, who under normal circumstances advocate for vaccination, are hesitant to get vaccinated. Furthermore, if we fail to demonstrate the validity of the stringent regulatory standards associated with vaccine development, we may lose the public’s confidence in vaccines for other preventable diseases. We cannot have poor scientific communication undermine the countless efforts which have sought to vanquish anti-vaccination movements.

COVID-19 is not the first coronavirus we have dealt with; its predecessor SARS and its distant relative MERS have been largely eradicated. Various, previously developed, vaccines have rendered many communicable diseases nearly inexistent; for instance, since 1979, after widespread use of the polio vaccine, the U.S. has been polio-free, and the introduction of a measles vaccine has led to a greater than 99 percent reduction in cases. Once contextualized, our circumstances seem far less unprecedented.

In fact, the most unprecedented circumstance we are witnessing is the enormity of resources, researchers, and financial capital poured into the vaccine development process. Not to mention the number of vaccine candidates concomitantly under development—26 candidates in clinical evaluation and 139 candidates in preclinical evaluation. These factors are all at play and should be a larger part of the conversation when we discuss how traditional timelines have been shortened.

It is important to note that this shift in narrative is not with any intention of misinforming or misguiding the public. It is imperative that everyone is aware of any vaccine’s associated risks. However, our enamor—as a scientific community—at the speed of innovation we are witnessing, should not cloud our ability to appropriately communicate with the public. And while we may be unable to instill confidence in everyone, the stakes are much larger than the public’s uptake of this single vaccine.

Perhaps our first step should be to rename a vaccine development project to something more reassuring than a reference to a science-fiction movie.

Austin A. Barr is an undergraduate student.

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