Two University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences employees who hold national roles critical to the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines say their development was quick but thorough and is the result of massive collaboration.
Jeannette Lee became a temporary voting member of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Vaccines & Related Biological Products Advisory Committee nearly six months ago. Her committee recommended emergency use authorization of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that are currently being distributed.
As of next month, Dr. Robert Hopkins will have been a member of the National Vaccine Advisory Committee for four years. He’s been chairing that committee since 2018.
Both have agreed to serve as long as they are needed.
Hopkins and Lee addressed in separate interviews the unprecedented speed at which the vaccines were developed. Hopkins said the average vaccine pipeline is seven to 12 years, but the yearlong development of the current vaccines was based on work that took decades, and Lee said that work is solid.
“As we can see, the virus is making more and more people sick and killing more and more people, so there obviously is a compelling reason to move as rapidly as possible,” Lee said.
In addition, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are very similar and highly effective. Lee doesn’t expect their effectiveness to change much as the companies seek full approvals, which they are expected to do in the second quarter.
She said the panel she serves on weighed how effective the current vaccines were compared to how they adversely affected those who received them during trials. She compared their effects to the effects associated with the flu shot, such as pain at the injection site.
For Hopkins, “The heartening message is that, if we put enough effort, not necessarily just hard work but if you involve enough partners across the globe, if we invest financially and in time, we can respond in an amazing variety of ways to a challenge. We've got over 100 different vaccines that are at different stages of development. We've got five or six that are either Phase Three or approved for emergency use.
“We've got a variety of different vaccine platforms that are attacking the problem of COVID disease in slightly different ways, but all leveraging a lot of science that's gone into that, to get us to this point. If we take steps in the process that we've always thought of as being sequential and we invest the right resources, we can do some of those steps in parallel and thus speed up our development.”
His and Lee’s work is far from over.
Lee has already been asked to set aside dates this month and the next to evaluate additional vaccines.
Hopkins said among the tasks for his committee are assessing and recommending how to improve the public's confidence in the vaccine and looking at how to address disparities in access to get vaccines to all who need them.
That committee also provided guidance to Arkansas in September on the implementation of its vaccine program, and recently completed a report on how to move from clinical trials with adults to trials with other populations that include children and pregnant women. Hopkins said prioritizing who receives a vaccine is necessary right now because the doses are difficult to make and pose a logistical challenge in that they need to be kept in certain conditions, such as frozen, while going to numerous sites.
Hopkins has also played a role in educating people on the UAMS campus and in the community about what the vaccines are, how they work and how one vaccine may be different from another. He’s trying to dispel some of the myths appearing on social media websites.
“We've had people talk about ‘Why don't we just wait for this virus to spread enough that we can all develop herd immunity?’ The fact is that human society has never had a disease that we've developed herd immunity from letting that disease go wild,” Hopkins said. “So, if we want to get to the point of having herd immunity, we need to do something like vaccination where we can safely protect people rather than waiting for people to either die off enough that we don't have enough people susceptible.”