On Mar. 23, 2021, three leading scientists formed a panel of speakers for a Chancellor’s Lecture Series event hosted by Chancellor Daniel Diermier and moderated by Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente. The distinguished researchers shared their insights on the research needed to develop the COVID-19 vaccine and the potential usage of mRNA technology in countering the new strains of the coronavirus. Before the event, two of the panelists spoke with the Vanderbilt Political Review on the misconceptions relating to the vaccine and the future of COVID-19.
The panelists for the event included Dr. Barney Graham, Deputy Director of the Vaccine Research Center and the Chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Mark Denison, Director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center; and Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, Director of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
The panel began with a discussion on how previous epidemics and pandemics have helped in the development of the current COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Graham noted how the work on HIV vaccines has helped generate new ways of thinking about vaccinology, allowing scientists to make vaccines with much more precision than ever before. Dr. Denison spoke about the decades of study needed to understand the different strands of coronaviruses. He also mentioned the difficulties in helping the public understand the importance of this research, given that such viruses were not well-known until the SARS (SARS-CoV-1) epidemic in 2002 and the ongoing COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic.
The panelists also discussed methods of countering future variant coronavirus strains via further employment of mRNA technology or the use of nanoparticles. The goal would be to create a “pan-coronavirus” vaccine that would ensure immunity against all known strains. Dr. Graham then went on to discuss the benefits of mRNA over traditional vaccine mediums as a means of ensuring an effective immune response, notably the relative molecular simplicity of mRNA and its ability to quickly mimic a natural immune response while circumventing the need for an actual viral infection.
To conclude, the panelists discussed the manners in which experiences from the COVID-19 pandemic would serve to prepare the world for future infectious disease response. In particular, they touched on the now-evident justifiability of investment in pandemic preparedness, the demonstrated efficacy of highly collaborative research, and a broader acknowledgement of global interconnectedness through which regional issues are able to sprout into major global challenges.
The Vanderbilt Political Review spoke with Dr. Barney Graham and Dr. Mark Denison before the Chancellor’s Lecture Series event. The questions dealt with public misconceptions regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, the media’s role in having strengthened these misconceptions, and what the battle against COVID-19 will look like going forward.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Gulibhi: What are common misconceptions that young people– particularly college students– have with regards to their life after getting a COVID vaccine?
Dr. Denison: I think you can tell us that better than we can tell you! My only big worry is that the vaccine might add to young people’s sense of invulnerability, thinking that there might be zero risk. We have to sell vaccines and give a general sense of their importance and protectiveness, but 98% is not 100%. A lower likelihood of getting serious symptoms after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine does not mean it is impossible to get infected or spread it to someone who could be vulnerable by age. Vulnerable people could also be young people with underlying health conditions. I think the concept that this is a complete armor of protection is false. I like to think of it as PPE in my laboratory. If I have an accident then the PPE will protect me, unlike a bubble that completely protects me. That’s the main misconception I worry about.
Dr. Graham: This is a personal disease, a disease of the individual, but also a disease of the community. I think in this case, people have to really remember this. Even if you are protected, I think that until the community virus load is low, people need to wear their masks and be careful about potentially transmitting the virus to people. The vaccines are wonderful and I’m really happy about their efficacy, but this doesn’t mean that the virus is totally gone.
Grujic: According to some recent polls, there is still some skepticism among people on wanting to take the vaccine. What are ways in which the U.S government or the media can reduce this skepticism among people and encourage those who usually would not take vaccines to take the COVID-19 vaccine?
Dr. Denison: I’m not sure the U.S. government can reduce skepticism. I think the responsibility comes down to the people that understand the science, get the vaccine, and are able to explain it to others they may know. If you’re talking about misconceptions, I think one of the misconceptions I’m dealing with on a daily basis is that people don’t think proximately about the virus itself, so getting people to try to understand the risk of disease to themselves and those around them versus a theoretical risk of the vaccine is something that we do. Skeptical people will typically get the vaccine when there’s someone that they care about or someone they know or someone like that who has gotten the vaccine… that seems to be the best way to get it done. I don’t know how much the government can do about it, honestly.
Dr. Graham: One of the problems is that the government is part of the reason people don’t trust the vaccine in the first place. So, divorcing it from the government is one way to help people trust the vaccine more. As Dr. Denison says, it’s not a choice between the vaccine or nothing, it’s a choice between the vaccine or the infection because everyone’s gonna have one of those eventually, and choosing the vaccine, a risk of 3 out of a million getting a severe allergic reaction versus a one or two percent chance of dying or a twenty percent chance of long-term side effects– I think that’s the choice people have to make. But, I don’t think you can tell people to take the vaccine, you have to give them information so that they can make their own decisions.
Gulibhi: We’ve seen some reporting on the extreme health effects that some individuals who happen to have taken vaccines showcase. In your view, what are some responsible ways in which the media should report on vaccines and vaccine efficacy?
Dr. Graham: I think one of the problems with the media is that it’s also economically driven. So, if they can’t sell stories or sell airtime, then they are out of business. A lot of the media has to make things sound scary, extreme– something that is a cause for concern. It takes a really ethical and responsible journalist to find the right balance between getting the story out and keeping it real. For instance, you may have heard cases of transverse myelitis or blood clotting or low platelets or different things along the way. If you’re putting vaccines in tens of millions of people, then you are gonna find people who have transverse myelitis, low platelet count, heart attacks, pulmonary embolism, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) because all those things are happening anyway. Such instances are not caused by the vaccine but are associated with vaccination. So, if you’re a journalist, you’re gonna sell a lot more papers if you say “vaccines cause ITP” rather than if you say that ITP is an expected condition among large populations that is unlikely to be caused by the vaccine.
I think journalists have some responsibility for helping people practice critical thinking so that they don’t always make causally related assumptions. You have to think about it in a critical way and not just assume one way or the other– it’s not an easy balance to strike, I admit that.
Grujic: The idea of a permanently endemic COVID-19 similar to something like the flu has been floated around before. Is this a likely outcome, or could COVID-19 go the way of smallpox and essentially be eradicated?
Dr. Denison: Smallpox was an endemic, a terrible, terrible endemic disease, and its eradication was really based on an incredible effort by the hundreds of thousands of peoples around the world in the smallest villages to the biggest cities. The virus only infected humans. So, COVID-19 is endemic in bats; it’s able to infect at least twelve or fifteen different species that we know of so far. And it’s also on its first waves through humans. So, I think endemicity has to do with establishing a stable evolutionary relationship with humans, but we’re not there yet. Our only chance for getting this under control is continuing to do the things we think are important for protecting those around us: masks, distancing, getting the vaccines, keeping up with the variants, and making people understand that we’re in a marathon, we’re not close to the end yet. So, this is a hard time, but we gotta do it as a community, a nation, a world.
It’s not endemic yet, that may be a long way down the road before it reaches endemicity. It’s possible that this virus might not thrive as an endemic virus, that it may go away, and that’s a hope that we can have if we can get the vaccines and everything in place enough. It’s a possibility that it might go away. COVID-19 may not be completely well-adapted for stably being a less severe virus in humans.
Dr. Graham: But it’s very likely in my opinion that it will become our fifth endemic coronavirus.
Dr. Denison: But that may take a long, long time before it changes itself. It’s acting like it has a lot of chess moves to play before we checkmate it in a corner somewhere.
Dr. Graham: Eradicating COVID-19 intentionally is not going to be easy because of all these other animals– cats and dogs and minks and everything else can be infected by this virus. Viruses that we think we can eradicate like smallpox and measles and polio do not have animal hosts. Those are the ones we think we may be able to eradicate.
Dr. Dension: So you guys go into science, and do the next generation of policy and fundamental science and advocacy and journalism to help to get COVID-19 gone.