Publishing results without proper peer-review:
Due to the urgency demands, some of the research papers pertaining to vaccines were published in journals before it got peer-reviewed. This led to a surge in the demand but later the demand got diminished because the rigorous peer-reviews were not favourable for some vaccines. This created much confusion at all levels. Having said this, it is important to note that there have not been any gross ethical violations during the development of these vaccines so far. It is safe to assume that if there were any serious misconduct, those matters would have been exposed by now because there is also an unprecedented scrutiny and spotlight from media, public and regulatory bodies.
Accelerated methodologies and efficiency
Because of the extraordinary and emergency nature of the need for COVID vaccine, almost every institution is in a fast-track mode when it comes to vaccine research publications, paperwork and permissions for production, marketing, distribution and so on. These institutions need to be mindful of the fact that one should not compromise any quality standards just for fast tracking the whole process. When the stakes are really high, some people tend to dilute certain protocols to overtake their rivals and competitors. Unfortunately regulating mechanisms are not fully robust or uniform in each and every country.
Balanced approach needed
WHO guidelines say that any adverse event related to the vaccine should be reported and investigated. “We should not compromise on ensuring that we have a safe and effective vaccine, even if it takes more time. The downsides to these are too high,” reminds Prof Menon, who uses supercomputing clusters to simulate disease spreading.
Side-effects, and halting trials
There have been a couple of recent reports from western world and India where the volunteers complained of uncomfortable side effects. In India, one such volunteer sued multiple people and agencies for a large sum of money and tried to halt the vaccine development process in India altogether.
This is also an extreme step. When the volunteers sign up willingly, they are made to sign an undertaking and understand the risks involved. No Indian was forced to become a guinea pig for this vaccine trial.
Scientists and medical professionals weigh in the side effects vs benefit ratio in a rigorous sense before arriving at a decision whether to continue the drug or not. In this context, the number of willing volunteers who complained of severe side effects are an extremely small compared to the total number who participated in the trials. No vaccine is ideal and hence we cannot expect zero side effect.
There is also a big anti-vaccination activists lobby out there who wants to derail this whole process. There are plenty of anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists who propagate this false myth that all vaccinations are bad for human health. “Vaccine hesitancy is a specious, irresponsible, manufactured phenomenon that imperils population health.” points out Dr Satchit Balsari, a public health expert at Harvard School of Public Health, USA. Irresponsible conspiracy theorists spread false rumours about infants dying or getting disabled due to time-tested vaccinations. The reality speaks otherwise.
Success of vaccinations:
“The eradication of smallpox and near-eradication of polio are public health triumphs that required global cooperation and commitment. There are still people alive today who know what it was like to be born into a community where measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox and polio were constant threats to the well-being and lives of children. Most Indians (as most of India is young) have been lucky to receive many of these vaccines; thanks to India’s vaccination campaigns,” adds Dr Balsari.
It is important to ignore such detrimental conspiracy spinners because the price we pay if we do not trust a COVID vaccine is not small. The number of deaths caused by this pandemic has been alarming so far.
In our global fight against COVID-19, our world leaders have stressed the fact that every single life on this planet is important and priceless! Many people have managed to shed their ego masks and started wearing real masks accepting how fragile human lives are!
Dr Aswin Sekhar
(The author is a scientist and science writer)