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ScienceFebruary 2, 2021

On Covid vaccines, please listen to scientists, not random accountants

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Wondering why the Covid-19 vaccines were able to be developed so quickly? Fair enough, too. Let me explain, writes Joel Rindelaub.

Under the headline “Why I wouldn’t give son vaccine yet”, the NZ Herald yesterday published a story questioning the safety of the latest Covid-19 vaccines. It was irresponsible reporting, and they have rightly removed it from their website. 

Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to demand data transparency for new discoveries. That’s literally what science is all about. But to write a story that doesn’t even mention said data? Absolutely absurd. 

In a piece that covers a significant breakthrough in science, you might expect to hear from an expert in the field, like a medical doctor or a PhD researcher. But not here. The only source was an accountant from Christchurch who was worried about the speed at which the vaccines were developed. 

Now, this is nothing against the accountant in the story. I’m sure they can rock a mean spreadsheet. But my guess is they aren’t exactly paging through all the latest medical journals in their spare time.

Nonetheless, they do have perfectly reasonable queries. And what did The Herald piece do to answer these? Absolutely nothing. The story just … ended. That was it. It left readers with no follow up, no insight, and no idea if vaccines are safe (they are).

Vaccine hesitancy is an issue in New Zealand, and this was a perfect opportunity to address real concerns by real people. 

Instead, the only insight the article provided was a mention to the investigation related to elderly deaths in Norway. Guess what? There has actually been an update on that investigation two weeks ago. Norway found no direct link between the vaccine and the elderly that died.

I am not attacking people questioning the vaccine, however. There are some very fair questions to ask, and it’s our job as scientists to answer them. 

So  without further ado, here are the main reasons why the Covid-19 vaccines were able to be developed so quickly (I also made a short video on the topic if visuals are more your thing).

  1. Money
    Heaps and heaps of money. Without worrying about funding, scientists could start clinical trials as soon as they were ready, while also doing parts of them simultaneously. This saved a huge amount of time. 
  2. Recruitment 
    There was no shortage of volunteers for the clinical trials, and there was plenty of money around to compensate them appropriately. In studies that rely on using people, finding enough of those people is often one of the major difficulties in getting a project started.
  3. Technology
    We have learned a significant amount from the previous SARS and MERS outbreaks, to the point where Moderna was able to have the blueprint for their vaccine just two days after learning the virus genome. This, along with mRNA technology, has been decades in the making; the science behind this wasn’t just thrown together in less than a year.
  4. Phase 3 trials happened fast 
    Like, really fast. This is the step where you either vaccinate or give the placebo to a large number of people. You then sit back and wait for enough people to get Covid-19 naturally so you can judge how well the vaccine worked. Ordinarily, this can take years. But this wasn’t an ordinary year. A raging global pandemic gave us sufficient case numbers in record time. 

So there you have it. A perfect storm of events came together, and scientists used them to come out on top. All the same safety testing was still carefully completed, it was just able to be conducted faster without restrictions.

It’s really quite an amazing feat, a “landing on the moon” moment of our generation if you will. And it goes to show that if we seriously invest in science, we might actually be able to save the world after all. 

Keep going!