I’ve been following some interesting developments with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and am fascinated with a couple of key points related to it.
First, the FDA is taking 22 days to analyze Johnson & Johnson’s trial, which according to reporting in The Wall Street Journal, had over 43,000 people. People might think that’s a little long during a pandemic, but it’s not. The usual process takes months. We’ve sped it up and asked our FDA scientists to work around the clock to condense their review of data so we can get life back to normal.
Why, you ask? Science, I’m sorry to tell you, doesn’t hold itself infallible. It’s checked and double-checked. And when new technology appears, we find new ways of checking things, and we check again. That’s why we learn new things all the time, and it’s also why Pluto got demoted. Science wants to make sure it’s right, and though there are some things that are “settled science,” that just means that the models work and every time they try to disprove it, they fail to.
Currently, the data we have on this vaccine comes from Johnson & Johnson. Now, I’m not accusing the company of lying, but there is a certain bias implicit there, like when Exxon hired climate scientists to argue against the impact of humans on climate change. We need to know that the FDA is doing what it can to catch a mistake or a biased reading of data. Twenty-two days is short under normal circumstances, so we don’t need to read too much into that “delay.”
The next area I’ve noticed is the reporting about the vaccine’s effectiveness. Many news organizations make a big deal about the 57-to-66% effectiveness, which is the only bit of information people latch on to. When my dad and Denny Bonavita taught me to write news copy, they both said that if there’s something really important, put it at the top. People tend to skim news articles, and the early stuff is what they’re most likely to walk away with. The reporting should have focused instead on the fact that the vaccine is 85% effective against preventing severe disease and death. The vaccine made it so the disease was mild and did not require hospitalization.
That’s key. If we can turn COVID-19 into the next common cold, then we’re back to normal, everyone. That’s the goal. Preventing the disease forever may be impossible but minimizing its effect on people is most important.
(Yes, and the economy, because, apparently, that’s more important that human lives.)
The race to vaccinate is extra important as the disease continues to evolve. Each new variant is more transmissible than the last, and the South African variant is the one that knocks down the efficacy of any vaccine. If we can decrease the spread or the severity of COVID-19, we can all go to comic-cons again!
(Or baseball games, proms, school sports events, live concerts, theaters for Marvel movies, whatever your thing is.)
For the past 20 years, we’ve become increasingly anti-science. I don’t think it’s willful stupidity anymore like I used to. I once believed that people were stupid enough to think that what they read on some paranoid Facebook group was more scientific than science. But now I realize that people are just scared. The world has moved and changed faster than we can keep up with, and people are genuinely trying to do what they think is best for themselves and their children. That’s not stupidity, it’s humanity, and I’m sorry for my earlier beliefs. So far, we’ve done a decent job as a society of minimizing the impact of these poorly-informed decisions.
However, I’m afraid we won’t be able to do that forever. The people paying the price for avoiding childhood vaccines won’t be the vaccinated parents, but their children. For COVID, it can be both parents and children, and grandparents, and the hospitals who have to take care of them when they could have been at home with a mild case, and even the overall economy. But the only way to fix this is through education, and when people stop trusting information and experts, that job becomes harder.
So, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is going through additional scrutiny, like every other vaccine has done. If it passes, it can be a game-changer: a one-shot, easily refrigerated and shipped, shelf-stable vaccine that can keep most people out of the hospital. It also seems to have fewer side effects than the other two vaccines. And on its heels, many other universities and organizations are working on the second wave of vaccines, the ones that create the long-term protection we need to put this pandemic permanently behind us. In order for us to get there, though, we need to make sure we’re getting all the information we need from credible sources, not Facebook, Twitter, or memes.
And despite our past few years of undermining the credibility of a lot of our institutions, they’re still working for us and doing what needs to be done.
I, for one, am ready for my shot.