In the face of rampant uncertainty, the Imperial College London (well known for making alarmist climate change predictions) released a study by Professor Neil Ferguson, in which it predicted massive global casualties attributed to the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV2), including more than a half million deaths in the U.K., and 2.2 million deaths in the United States. Of course, like every good doomsday prediction, the study was not entirely accurate, and Ferguson revised his apocalyptic death toll significantly downward in the days that followed. He has since resigned from his position for actions tangentially related to his less-than-reliable predictions.
With fewer than 450,000 deaths worldwide, scientists continue to work to develop and distribute a vaccine, some promising to do so in less than a year. U.S. National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, has said he believes the U.S. would develop a vaccine “first,” and that scientists were moving “very quickly.” Being first to develop a vaccine might be important to the government and scientists, but it may not be in the best interest of the public.
The rush to develop, produce, and then market medicines or vaccines can have disastrous consequences – consequences of which the medical and scientific community have previously turned a blind eye. In late April, however, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested that millions of doses of a vaccine could be ready by January 2021; a scant eight months from now. He acknowledged that the accelerated time frame would require manufacturers to do so “at risk,” elaborating:
In other words, you don’t wait until you get an answer before you start manufacturing. You at risk — proactively — start making it, assuming it’s going to work.
Stated differently, the world’s so-called best and brightest in science are working to push a vaccine to market on little more than a wing and a prayer.
Scientists are aware of the ramifications of cramming a multi-year process into an eight month window, one of the most significant being vaccine-induced enhancement, in which recipients exhibit worse symptoms after being injected. This is also referred to as antibody-dependent enhancement – “…a phenomenon in which virus-specific antibodies enhance the entry of virus, and in some cases the replication of virus.” The result is typically a more infectious pathogen capable of producing illness of increased severity.
Sometimes the cure really is worse than the disease. Is the public willing to take that risk?
In what could make him persona non grata in the scientific and Big Pharma community, Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, warned against the rush to get a vaccine to market in an accelerated manner. He stated, “I understand the importance of accelerating timelines for vaccines in general, but from everything I know, this is not the vaccine to be doing it with.”
Dr. Hoetz worked with a team of scientists to develop a vaccine during the SARS outbreak in 2003. The team found that vaccinated animals showed evidence of immune enhancement in the form of more severe disease than unvaccinated animals. Other researchers working on a SARS vaccine found evidence of pulmonary immunopathology in mice, when challenged with the SARS virus.
According to a 2008 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the NIH, vaccine-induced enhancement has been a major stumbling block in the development of coronavirus vaccines. A recent study in The Lancet reported, “In the past two decades alone, five new human coronaviruses have been discovered, three of which are highly pathogenic.” Especially noteworthy is the fact that a viable vaccine has never been produced for any of them.
Government agencies and Big Pharma do have a history of pushing novel drugs onto the market, rejecting fewer than 20 percent of all applications in 2017. Although that can be a blessing for patients searching for new therapies, there is a significant risk of dangerous side effects.
With that said, the question remains whether it is in the best interest of public health to rush a vaccine to market that could produce more severe disease, especially in patients most susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus by virtue of age and presence of comorbidities, including chronic liver, kidney, and heart disease, diabetes, and immunosuppressive conditions.
Unfortunately, health science is rife with competing interests; the decision makers and financiers, the scientists, patent holders, and manufacturers. Consumers are often lost in the shuffle, despite the fact they have the most to lose – their health, when the best and the brightest in science move too quickly to produce a vaccine under the assumption it’s going to work.