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Why transparency, diversity was key in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine development


The drug company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech announced initial late-stage vaccine data Monday. It revealed that the vaccine under development is more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19, though the trial is still ongoing and results are not yet complete.

The companies were shooting for a 60% threshold, and other experts said even a 55% effectiveness rate would have made the vaccine viable.

In the last few months, Pfizer and BioNTech have shared other details of the process including trial blueprints, the breakdown of the subjects and ethnicities, and whether they’re taking money from the government.

Why transparency? Surveys suggest a high degree of public skepticism about this vaccine process. In fact, 51% of Americans said they would “definitely” or “probably” take a vaccine, according to a September poll from the Pew Research Center. That’s down from May when 72% of respondents said they would likely get one.

Dr. Eric Topol, head of innovative medicine at Scripps Research, said, “I put a lot of pressure, as did others, to get those protocols transparent and released.”

Topol applauded Pfizer for waiting until it had enough data before going public on Sunday.

“So the fact that this was done right and it didn’t interfere with the election, it’s much more auspicious and important,” Topol said. “It wasn’t used as a prop or a tool. It stands on its own. That’s essential.” 

Pfizer also says it worked to diversify study participants: 42% are from “racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds.” 

That was important, said drug discovery chemist Derek Lowe, because many in the African American community have harbored suspicions about vaccines, ever since the government’s Tuskegee syphilis experiments decades ago.

Those were conducted on Black men who were neither informed of the study nor treated with effective drugs, “which was a medical disaster,” Lowe said. “An ethical and moral disaster. And it has messed up the relationship between that community and drug research ever since,” he added.

As for funding, many vaccine firms took R&D money from the government, though Pfizer did not. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CBS’ “Face the Nation” in September that the company did so to “liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy.” “When you get money from someone, that always comes with strings,” he said.

The next big test, said Jennifer Miller at the Yale School of Medicine, comes when drug companies release their data, “so that other scientists who the public trust can go in, replicate findings, and communicate them to the public. And hopefully build appropriate trust in a vaccine.”

Enough trust to take the vaccine and slow the pandemic.

New COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. are on the rise. How are Americans reacting?

Johns Hopkins University reports the seven-day average of new cases hit 68,767 on Sunday  — a record — eclipsing the previous record hit in late July during the second, summer wave of infection. A funny thing is happening with consumers though: Even as COVID-19 cases rise, Americans don’t appear to be shying away from stepping indoors to shop or eat or exercise. Morning Consult asked consumers how comfortable they feel going out to eat, to the shopping mall or on a vacation. And their willingness has been rising. Surveys find consumers’ attitudes vary by age and income, and by political affiliation, said Chris Jackson, who heads up polling at Ipsos.

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

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