When I first wrote about the arrival of SARS-CoV-2 in early March 2020, the question was whether or not the new virus would become a pandemic. At the time, most experts believed that we had already reached the point of no return.
Today, 18 months later, the answer is clear. You don’t have to be a scientist to know this. This pandemic is the worst public health emergency of international concern that our modern society has faced. So far, more than 215 million cases have been confirmed and 4.5 million deaths have been reported globally.
These are the only reported cases. In fact, the number of cases is high, and for a number of reasons: lack of diagnostic capacity, infection without symptoms, reluctance or inability to get tested or visit a health facility, etc. The number of deaths due to COVID-19 in Canada and around the world is, perhaps, underestimated.
In addition to changing the way we live our daily lives, the pandemic has brought scientific processes to the attention of the public. Researchers working in the shadows now had to provide solutions – and explanations – for a very real threat, and they are doing so under the watchful eye of the public.
One of these solutions, vaccination, is far from new. Yet no matter what the context, it always generates news. So where are we now?
Still in our labs! I recently completed my PhD in Microbiology-Immunology at Laval University, research I conducted under the supervision of Professor Gary Kobigner, who is known for co-developing an effective vaccine and treatment for Ebola. This fall, I will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at Galveston National Laboratory in Texas, where I will continue my work on vaccine development against and against serious pathogens.
The World Health Organization (WHO) currently lists 13 available COVID-19 vaccines based on four different platforms, including mRNA vaccine and viral vector vaccine. Globally, more than five billion doses of vaccines have been given. In Canada, five of these vaccines are currently approved for use: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Covishild and Janssen, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca are in wide distribution. Combined, these vaccines are administered to about 70 percent of Canadians.
However, many people have raised questions about these vaccines. And that’s the right thing to do! The unknown has always been a source of concern for human beings, it is normal to ask questions.
So, after working tirelessly to develop vaccines against COVID-19, what are scientists and doctors doing now?
They are doing what they have always done: practicing the best science they can within the limits of current knowledge. This scientific exercise is meant to continue evaluating the effectiveness of these vaccines against new forms in laboratories as the virus continues to mutate.
This means identifying who has experienced side-effects (severe or not) from vaccination and continuing to investigate the possible link between these side-effects and the vaccine. The science they are practicing involves studying the virus day and night to understand how it makes people sick, how we can prevent infection and what we have to do to get rid of it as soon as possible. What are the options?
The term “current knowledge” is very important here. It is possible that more vaccination-related side effects will be detected much later. Why over here
When vaccines are initially developed in the laboratory and tested on animals, it is common that No All side effects are identified. After all, a mouse is not a human, and models cannot account for all the variables that can be found in a human. Humans live in a complex environment and society where each person has their own genetics, immunity and lifestyle (exercise, smoking, nutrition).
In addition, the more people who are vaccinated, the greater the chance of detecting a serious side effect. Clinical trials, where drugs and vaccines are evaluated in a small group of individuals before they are made available to the general population, are designed to be safe. Volunteers are usually healthy adults, without serious pre-existing medical conditions.
Read more: Explainer: How clinical trials test COVID-19 vaccines
Vaccination is now widespread in many countries. It is therefore statistically common that rare effects (for example, those that develop in a million people) are now being observed. These effects are very rare to be detected in a clinical trial of 10,000 people. This is the case for rare side effects such as Guillain-Barré syndrome and Bell’s palsy.
The scientific method requires that the following procedure be followed: observe a problem, formulate a hypothesis about its possible causes, evaluate it experimentally by controlling for variables, interpret the results and draw conclusions.
It may turn out that our initial hypothesis is wrong, and it is equally acceptable. This is how science was created. I think before the pandemic people believed science to be infallible. Opening up research to the general public has changed this perception significantly, especially as science becomes increasingly entangled in politics, especially over the question of the origins of the pandemic.
knowing how to communicate
And that’s where the problem comes in, among other things. The key to effective scientific communication is not science. This is communication. The results of laboratory experiments and clinical tests are what they are. Either the vaccine or the drug works to reduce mortality, or it doesn’t work, and we go back to the drawing board.
So where does the reluctance about vaccines come from? One of the main problems is the lack of information about the safety of the vaccine. Almost everyone on the Internet has access to this information. The problem is a lack of trust in institutions, which has been increasing globally in recent years.
Read more: How better conversations can help reduce vaccine hesitation for COVID-19 and other shots
But this trust can be earned – or reclaimed. It just takes time, respect and empathy. A study by researchers at the Center Hospitallier Université de Sherbrooke shows that an educational session about vaccination that used motivational interview techniques with the parents of infants resulted in a ninefold increase in vaccination rates compared to families that did not. There was an increase in the percentage of those who did not get the session.
finding the right answer to a question
Ultimately the goal of science is to find the right answer to a question.
Of course, as is human nature, we are not immune to conflicts of interest. We need to ensure transparency about things like funding and the relationship between scientists and potential investors. This is especially important because we are all responsible for funding research, whether through federal subsidies, which are derived partly from taxes paid by citizens, or through the general purchase of drugs at pharmacies.
Since this is a matter of concern to all, the time has come for the public to become more involved. After all, scientific discoveries and health measures are everyone’s job. For example, some citizens are familiar with “work benefits research”. These studies may include levels of risk from very low to very high. For example, producing a drug from a single bacterium confers less risk and greater benefit. However, increased virulence or transmission of viruses such as Ebola or Influenza could pose great risk if such research was conducted by ill-intentioned individuals, or in poorly secured laboratories.
Read more: The origins of SARS-CoV-2: why the idea of lab-leaks is being revisited
Like any aspect of science, a risk-benefit analysis must be done. Note that in most institutions where research is done, committees that assess whether a study is worth doing are not only made up of scientists and students, but also members of the public.
Now each side just has to do its job. Scientists need to do a better job communicating and interpreting their results, as well as answering questions of particular interest to the public and gaining their trust. They have to stop hiding and listening behind mountains of data, complex terms and scientific articles that are not readily available to the general public.
Scientists who are hesitant about vaccination should ask: “What data would make you change your mind?”, “Why do you think the current data are insufficient?”, “Why do you trust this person, But not on the other or any other institution?” In this way constructive dialogue can be started and more in-depth thinking can begin.
For their part, citizens can adopt better practices for obtaining information and not just consider information that fits their personal narrative. It is also important not to fall into the maze of conspiracy theories and rely on false experts. It’s important not to be intimidated by skepticism, look for other sources to confirm or disprove what you just read, and ask trusted experts near you what they think.
Do you have questions about COVID-19 vaccines? Email us at ca‑[email protected] and vaccine experts will answer questions in upcoming articles.