Gabrielle Siegers has a PhD in molecular immunology and is currently working as an independent scientific consultant.
For those unaware of how scientific discovery works, this pandemic has been an eye-opener.
Scientific progress, in all its complexity, is unfolding publicly and unwittingly sowing seeds of distrust. Public health officials are doing their best with new information surfacing daily, but such learning on the fly can create confusion. Last week’s mixed messaging regarding vaccines in Canada is a perfect example.
In the spirit of well-intended transparency, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), which is charged with advising how vaccines should be prioritized for use in Canada, acknowledged the extremely small risk of blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines and advised that those at lower risk of contracting COVID-19 wait for the mRNA vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna. But NACI neglected to explain that the risk of blood clots and death are magnitudes higher from COVID-19 infection, currently rampant in Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s message remains that the only way to conquer the virus is to get vaccinated as soon as possible, with whichever vaccine is available. Both parties would claim that their advice is supported by science, but once properly put into context, it is clear to me that waiting poses more of a risk.
Usually, we only hear about a new drug, procedure or vaccine long after it has been approved. But we have openly witnessed COVID-19 vaccine development, which has occurred at an astonishing rate.
To learn about COVID-19, scientists have taken different approaches, tackling questions from multiple angles, with different expertise, tools and protocols. From a seemingly messy jumble of data gathered from many studies, evidence emerges and evolves. This takes time, a luxury we don’t have when fighting a rapidly spreading existential threat. We have to make decisions quickly, without knowing for sure what will work.
Such uncertainty understandably makes people uncomfortable. Decisions made rapidly in the name of science – and sometimes reversed just as fast – have led people to question whether they should be trusted. What are we to think when scientists openly criticize one another’s research?
Yet this is how science progresses – the public just rarely sees the process. It is normal for scientists to point out weaknesses in research. In fact, the best studies point out their own limitations, providing direction for further investigation. If a study appears to have been ignored, it is likely because it has not been confirmed by others. Multiple high-quality independent papers that validate one another outweigh the one report that does not.
Furthermore, not all studies found online have undergone peer review, the scientific community’s version of quality control, though this has been of some benefit where COVID-19 is concerned.
Posting research on the “preprint server” bioRxiv (pronounced “bio-archive”) enables scientists to prove they did the work first and instantly share their data, while the process of publishing a peer-reviewed scientific paper takes months or even years. I have co-authored research papers that have taken anywhere from three to 13 months to publish formally. In the face of a rapidly growing global health threat, we do not have 13 months to wait.
Speed is of the essence, yet the rapid rate of advancement has made people uneasy. While the swift spread of COVID-19 has been devastating, this very characteristic has enabled vaccine trials to be completed so quickly.
To test a vaccine, infection rates are compared between a group of participants who receive it and an unvaccinated control group. Because COVID-19 spreads so quickly (naturally, among people living in their communities), critical numbers of infected cases were reached far faster than normal for viruses circulating at lower levels in the population. Scientists could tell how effective the vaccines were much more quickly than usual. But it was only after all the trial data had been carefully re-evaluated by scientists and medical doctors at Health Canada that vaccines were deemed safe and approved.
Despite worldwide rapid advances in science, we do not know everything about COVID-19. Still, I trust that the experts are doing the best they can with the information they have. We have seen an unprecedented co-operation among scientists around the globe to develop vaccines to quash this pandemic. While this has seemed quicker than many are comfortable with, we need to realize that safety is and remains everyone’s top priority. From researchers to health authorities and politicians, to you and to me – we all have loved ones we want to protect from COVID-19.
I got my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine on April 19. Have you gotten yours? Stay safe.
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