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A Vaccine by November? Science Journalist in Vaccine Trial Casts Doubt on Rosy U.S. Projections

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With 30,000 people taking part in the first major COVID-19 vaccine study in the United States, hopes are high that the collaboration between drugmaker Moderna and the National Institutes of Health will yield positive results as early as November. Researchers around the world are working on more than 165 vaccine candidates, though only a handful are conducting large-scale human trials. We speak with BBC science journalist Richard Fisher, who took part in the vaccine trial run by Oxford University that is among the most promising. “It was both a personal decision and a journalistic one,” Fisher says of his decision to volunteer. “I wanted to do something that helps the collective effort to get us closer to a vaccine.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After months of denial, President Donald Trump made his second-ever public appearance wearing a mask in North Carolina Monday, where he said a coronavirus vaccine could be available by the end of the year. He made the comments while touring a Fujifilm plant that has been repurposed to make vaccines.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And we’re here, actually, today to discuss the exciting progress that we’ve achieved under the Operation Warp Speed, our historic initiative to develop, test, manufacture and deliver a vaccine in record time. And that’s what it is: in record time. Likewise, therapeutically, we are very, very advanced. You’re hearing about it, and you’ll be hearing about it a lot more in the next two weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump did not wear a mask during his news conference, and overnight he tweeted to his more than 80 million followers, “I know you people want to talk about a mask. Hello? You don’t need a mask.”

Well, the first major COVID-19 vaccine study launched in the U.S. Monday. In a collaboration between the drugmaker Moderna and the National Institutes of Health, 30,000 people will join a clinical trial this summer to determine the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. Top expert and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said results from the late-stage study could be available as early as November. The company Pfizer also launched a late-stage study Monday that will involve 30,000 people from the United States, Argentina, Brazil and Germany. This all comes as a vaccine being developed by Oxford University has triggered an immune response.

For more, we go to London, where we’re joined by a science journalist who participated in Oxford’s vaccine trial. Richard Fisher is a senior journalist for BBC Future. He wrote about his experience in a piece headlined “Coronavirus: What I learnt in Oxford’s vaccine trial.”

Richard Fisher, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about why you decided that you would be injected.

RICHARD FISHER: Hi there. Hi. Thanks for having me on.

So, for me, it was both a personal decision and a journalistic one. So, I wanted to do something that helped the collective effort to get us closer to a vaccine. I mean, I’ve been relatively fortunate in this pandemic, in the sense that I’m not a frontline worker. I don’t work in a shop or in a hospital or drive a bus. I’m a journalist who works behind a desk, working at home, so my level of risk is very low compared with many others. And so, I just saw an opportunity to kind of like help a study that I admired for the pace and speed at which it’s moving along.

The second reason is a kind of journalistic curiosity one. I report and write about clinical trials and how science works from the outside, but I’ve never actually been part of one. And so, in a kind of like method journalism kind of way, it was a great opportunity to actually see what it’s like inside a clinical trial and what the process is like for the individuals who do volunteer.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you take us through some of the process, once you started the trial? Because this is an unusual situation, where even before the trials are fully completed, we’re finding countries like Brazil this week announce that they’re putting down $287 million for initial doses of the vaccine.

RICHARD FISHER: Yeah. I mean, the actual experience with the Oxford trial has been excellent so far. I mean, the way it works is you sign up on the website, fill out a form, a questionnaire asking you about your medical history, and then, from there, you go to an initial screening appointment. And in my case, it was in the hospital in Tooting, South London, where my daughter was born. You know, I’ve been there many times. And it was a repurposed neurology ward that had been kind of like set aside for the vaccine trials. And it was a — I mean, visiting hospitals at the moment is certainly different to when you go to see the birth of your child. Everyone’s wearing masks, a strong smell of bleach everywhere.

But once into the vaccine trial, they talk you through. They want to inform you, make sure that you know everything about the trial. So they explain the science to you. They explain the possible side effects. They also talk about what you won’t be able to do, what you will be able to do. You know, for example, I can’t give blood for the next year. If I was a woman, I would be asked to use contraception. And so, they’re very careful to make sure that you have full knowledge of everything that is going on within the trial and the potential side effects, mild and severe, that you may or may not experience. And so, it’s a very thorough process at the start.

And then, the following week, in my case, I went along and I had the vaccine — well, I should say I don’t know whether I actually have the experimental vaccine. It’s a 50-50 chance. So, in the Oxford trial, there’s 10,000 of us, and we’re split into two groups. And half will get the experimental vaccine being developed at Oxford University. The other half get a vaccine that’s been developed for — sorry, a vaccine that is already developed for meningitis and sepsis. And so, I don’t know which vaccine I have, nor does the doctor who injects you, either. And that’s to make sure that the actual results of the trial are fully robust in a double-blind study.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how long was the process of the actual trial, before the preliminary results were announced?

RICHARD FISHER: Ah. Well, I see. So, it’s in various different phases. So, the preliminary results were based on the initial thousand people who volunteered in an earlier phase of the trial. So, a clinical trial, as many of your audience will know, moves through various different stages. A vaccine is tested with animals first, and kind of the basic safety is understood, and then there’s a small initial trial. And that’s the results of which that was announced a week or two ago, that suggested, very promisingly, that there was no severe safety problems and also that there was an immune response generated in the bodies of the people that had the vaccine. So, that’s very promising.

But what needs to be done now is expanding out into Phase 2, Phase 3, which is what’s happening with the Moderna trial, as well, in the U.S. at the moment. This is about kind of testing safety and efficacy at scale. In order to kind of have the confidence to deliver a vaccine to an entire country, to the entire world, to billions of people, you need to test over a large scale. You need a lot of people, and in a lot of different kind of environments, experiencing the — different lives, the virus in different ways. And only then can you kind of like gain the confidence over time to know whether a vaccine is both safe — because you may see very rare side effects in a larger group of people — and then, secondly, like whether it actually works.

So, this is part of, like, science, like the long term, the long haul of developing a vaccine. I think it’s often kind of thought that you can just throw money at the problem and get a vaccine quicker. And it’s certainly true that, like, we are accelerating vaccine development at the moment. I mean, Operation Warp Speed is an example of that in the U.S. But there needs to be patience, because only time will tell whether a vaccine works at scale. And this is something that, like, is a challenge for the regulators. And at some point down the track with these vaccines rocketing through the trials, a regulator is going to have to say, “Yes, this is OK. We can roll this out.” But a queue is going to instantly form of people who want this vaccine. And everybody in the world needs a vaccine at the moment.

So there’s huge political, social pressure on these scientists. I mean, it’s a heavy burden to carry. I mean, I think it’s fascinating from the point of view of the scientists. Many of them were working in different fields before this pandemic. You know, they were working on coronavirus vaccines, but not necessarily thinking about a pandemic of this scale. So, now they have the expectation and hopes of billions of people around the world on their shoulders. So I have huge admiration for the scientists involved in this work.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Fisher, I wanted to ask about your thoughts on President Trump, you know, going to North Carolina yesterday, and before the big name of pushing for a vaccine, which is called Warp Speed, Operation Warp Speed, he talked about the various vaccine programs, but then, last night, tweeted, “You don’t need [to wear] a mask,” as if going for a vaccine in the months to come means that — and as he said yesterday, states should be reopening, schools should be reopening, for this promise in the future. Your brother is a doctor in the intensive care unit nearby where you are. Can you talk about the connection between these two things? And then, if you could respond to a poll by Associated Press that found that half of Americans say that they would get a COVID-19 vaccine, but about 30% said they weren’t sure, and another one in five said they would refuse to get a vaccine? Maybe part of their concern is that word “Warp Speed.” Is this going to be safe? There’s a lot to unpack, but if you could?

RICHARD FISHER: Yeah, it is. I mean, those statistics about people refusing a vaccine, that is worrying, because, you know, I think the safety of these vaccines is being tested in many, many people, and I would worry if people turn it down based on kind of minor side effects and concerns that they may have read on social media. I mean, if you’re somebody who is unsure about having a vaccine, I just would suggest reading — going to authoritative sources, reading journalism from the BBC or magazines like New Scientist or STAT News, based in Boston. I mean, this will tell you about, like, how the vaccines actually work and what the process is.

The question of, like, the wearing masks, I mean, I know this has been hotly debated over here in the U.K., as well. I mean, it’s only just been the case that masks have become compulsory inside shops. And this certainly is not the political question over here that it is in the U.S. The science suggests that wearing a mask reduces your risk. It can’t keep you safe. I mean, there’s no such thing as being totally safe during a pandemic, but it’s about reduction of risk. If something reduces your risk just a little bit, and also it reduces the risk of the people around you, then I think it’s something that’s worth doing. It seems a very easy thing to do, for me personally. And I don’t mind wearing a mask.

As for the vaccine, I mean, we’re still a way off. I mean, it’s coming, but the typical timeline for vaccine development is measured in years, not months. I mean, I must admit I was surprised to hear Anthony Fauci suggest that the vaccine might come October, November. I mean, that’s much faster than I expected. I mean, he’s more qualified than me to answer that question, but I think it’s worth remembering we’re in it for the long haul. I mean, this disease will be around for a long time. It’s also the case that we shouldn’t hold out hope that the first vaccine will be what’s called a sterilizing vaccine. So, many people think of a vaccine as something that it will just wipe out, and that’s it, and you can’t — you won’t be able to get — you won’t catch disease. But some of the preliminary evidence suggests that it may take more than one vaccine, and the first one might not necessarily wipe out the disease. People may still be able to, for example, be protected, which would be fantastic — that would be of huge importance — but they could still pass it on. And that’s something that would still allow the disease to spread to those who haven’t had it or those who can’t have a vaccine because they’re vulnerable for other reasons, and, for example, if they have cancer or —

AMY GOODMAN: Twitter has removed a tweet that was retweeted by President Trump, that falsely said there’s a cure for coronavirus. He retweeted a tweet that said, “Covid has cure. America wake up.” But, Richard Fisher, before we go, I wanted to ask you — you spent a year here with a Knight Fellowship looking at the problem of governments focused on short-termism. Can you make the connection between attitudes like these when it comes to coronavirus and denial of the climate crisis, for example?

RICHARD FISHER: It’s definitely the case that there is, embedded in the structure of like our political systems, for any politician of any kind of party, that the incentives are there to kind of please the base and the voters in the next election, rather than make decisions that benefit society five, 10, 15, even 50 years down the track. So, you know, this has been something that’s been embedded within democracy for many years. So, the question is more just how can we incentivize politicians to do things that benefit the next one. You know, so if a politician knows that their term is coming to an end, why would they do something that they won’t get the political credit for? And that’s a challenge for politics generally, I think. There are efforts to kind of think about that and think about like how our decisions and how our politicians make decisions that affect future generations, but it’s a tough problem. And I think it’s particularly acute at the moment with the rise of populist politics, because when you have politicians doing things that only speak to their base, then that very much leads to short-termism over, like, the longer-term benefit for society.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Fisher, I want to thank you for being with us, senior journalist at BBC Future, volunteer in the COVID-19 vaccine trial at Oxford University. We’ll link to your piece, “Coronavirus: What I learnt in Oxford’s vaccine trial.” In fact, Richard doesn’t know if he got the vaccine or a placebo.

But when we come back, we’ll look at the government program pumping billions of dollars into vaccine development. Who’s profiting? Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Wintley Phipps performing “Amazing Grace” yesterday in the Capitol Rotunda for the late Georgia Democratic lawmaker John Lewis. John Lewis, the first African American lawmaker whose body is laying in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

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