COVID-19 Vaccine: Is Our Priority Speed or Safety?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


August 10, 2020

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU's Grossman School of Medicine.

Have you heard these phrases recently with reference to vaccines? Warp speed, race, accelerate. Although many of us hope that we could land on an effective and safe vaccine to work our way out of this horrible COVID-19 epidemic, those words make me very, very nervous.

There are polls that have been appearing over the past couple of months that say there are many people in America and around the world who are nervous about accepting a vaccine. Some of their worry and hesitancy, unfortunately, is fueled by a well-organized, loud, and omnipresent anti-vaccine movement.

This movement has been growing in strength during the COVID-19 epidemic, ironically allying itself with those who say they don't want to have their liberties infringed upon by requiring stay-at-home orders, isolation, social distancing, or masks. The anti-vaxxers have found, if you will, company with those who are arguing for their civil liberties, saying no one should be forcing, mandating, insisting upon, or even recommending a vaccine.

That's making people very nervous. What also makes them nervous is the idea that a vaccine might be rushed out before the data really are in to show that it is absolutely safe and hopefully very effective.

When the President, Tony Fauci, or others say they hope to have a vaccine by the end of the year or early next year, I think to myself, not only is that next to impossible to achieve because research may not deliver and manufacturing is difficult, but we don't want to cut corners in any way in terms of having large-scale, adequate clinical trials that usually involve tens of thousands of participants for vaccine development.

The fastest vaccines in the past that have ever made it to FDA approval — not manufacturing, but just to approval — have taken upwards of 5 or 6 years. To think we're going to have something by the winter or early next year smacks of a situation like, "Maybe we didn't get all the data in, but we're going to release it anyway," or that we might hear officials say, "It's an emergency, so we can't wait for all the data to come in, and we're going to release it."

In this current climate of anti-vaccine rhetoric and hesitancy about vaccines on the part of 30% or 40% of Americans, according to polls, that would be a disaster.

We can't cut corners. We need warp speed to a safe and effective vaccine. We need to race to find a safe and effective vaccine. I'm not for going slow, but I am for making sure that the public knows that they're not going to be put at risk, and that there's no basis for doubt on the part of anti-vaccine zealots that the very tool that will get us out of this mess can't be trusted.

Let's go prudently. Let's go safely. Let's use common sense and let's communicate to the public that no corners are going to be cut. We'll go fast, but we'll be safe.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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