US President Donald Trump’s bid to rush a coronavirus jab to market by the end of 2020 has worried some Americans, even before he named it “Operation Warp Speed” and appointed the developer of a failed swine flu vaccine to run it.
Nearly a third of Americans might refuse a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, according to a poll conducted earlier this month by Civic Science. The percentage has likely gone up since then, as the 2,900 respondents to that survey gave their answers before Trump announced on Friday that the 12-to-18-month timeline for vaccine development – already unheard-of in the pharmaceutical industry – would be stepped up with an eye toward rolling out a shot by the end of the year.
It’s not just the shockingly abbreviated timetable that has Americans worried about their safety regarding the proposed vaccine – the head of the initiative already has one botched jab under his belt, and he’s invested (literally) in several of the vaccine candidates under development.
GlaxoSmithKline vaccine chairman Moncef Slaoui was appointed by Trump on Thursday to run the task force his administration is calling Operation Warp Speed. Slaoui spent 30 years with GSK, which is one of dozens of pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine; he’s also earned close to half a million dollars as a director of Moderna, currently tapped as one of the leading candidates in the vaccine race. Watchdog groups like Public Citizen have already raised alarms about his conflicts of interest, but that’s the least of his problems.
As chief of vaccines at GSK, Slaoui oversaw the development of the disastrous Pandemrix vaccine for swine flu, a shot that was rushed to market without proper testing in the midst of a 2009 epidemic, during which public health officials were shrieking about enormous death tolls that never materialized, with some claiming the death toll would rival the 1918 influenza pandemic (sound familiar?).
The result of the hasty approval process was an unsafe, ineffective shot that left over a thousand recipients permanently brain-damaged, some 80 percent of them children. Forty percent of NHS staffers were vaccinated under false pretenses, told the shot was safe and effective. The UK government was forced to pay out millions of pounds in compensation, as GSK had refused to supply the drug to governments until it was indemnified against lawsuits.
Pandemrix was never approved for use in the US, and it’s possible Trump is unaware his vaccine czar was involved in the sordid debacle. However, the US has had a similar policy of indemnifying vaccine manufacturers in place since 1986, meaning any damage caused by an unsafe coronavirus vaccine will come out of Uncle Sam’s pocket.
GSK’s checkered past isn’t exactly a secret stateside. The firm had the dubious distinction of paying out in 2012 what was the largest fine ever paid by a pharmaceutical firm, after admitting to what the Justice Department called“the biggest healthcare fraud in history,” shelling out $3 billion as punishment for, among other things, concealing the deadly side effects of its diabetes drug Avandia.
Of course, GSK is hardly the only drug company cutting corners. Moderna, the favorite to “win” Operation Warp Speed, has never brought a vaccine to market before, and the mRNA vaccine it is developing is a type that’s never been approved for use in humans. Worse, the company is actually skipping animal trials completely, with its chief medical officer Tal Zaks insisting that he didn’t think the intermediate step – carried out to avoid subjecting humans to unnecessary harm – was necessary.
Several other companies are also skipping animal trials in their rush to cross the finish line first and score what is likely to be a very lucrative contract to vaccinate seven billion people – that’s at least in the words of Bill Gates, who despite a lack of public health credentials has an apparent leverage at the World Health Organization through sheer financial muscle.
However, even the most jab-happy scientists have cautioned against rushing a coronavirus shot to market. Tropical disease specialist Peter Hotez, who worked on a shelved vaccine for SARS – another coronavirus – testified before Congress that the SARS vaccine effort ended badly for the experimental animals. Many fell victim to a condition called “immune enhancement” in which they developed a severe and often fatal version of the disease they’d just been vaccinated against when exposed to the virus anew.
“I understand the importance of accelerating timelines for vaccines in general, but from everything I know, this is not the vaccine to be doing it with,” Hotez told Reuters in March. The “record” for vaccine development is four years, he said, advising against rolling out any vaccine without monitoring for adverse effects for at least a year.
Mainstream media presents “vaccine hesitancy” as the province of science-hating conspiracy theorists. But while many vaccines are life-saving, it’s not difficult to understand those Americans who are willing to wait for a proven safe jab instead of jumping on board Trump’s Operation Warp Speed express. With the current record-breaking pace of testing, it may not be long before we learn which of the vax poll respondents are the wisest (and the healthiest).
By Helen Buyniski