By: Gisela Valencia
As the world continues to wrestle with the pandemic, many of us are wondering if the development of a COVID-19 vaccine would be the decisive stroke in attacking the coronavirus and reducing the pandemic.
This topic was one of many that a group of international experts discussed as part of this year’s Global Health Consortium’s conference, hosted virtually Oct. 6-9 by FIU’s Robert Stempel School of Social Work & Public Health.
“The Global Health Conference of the Americas is a pivotal event that brings together heads of state, political leaders, international organizations, top scientists, policymakers and experts in the field on the most important global health issues of the day,” says Dr. Carlos Espinal, director of the Global Health Consortium. “This year’s conference also brought the leaders at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic together to share the latest research, findings, discoveries and lessons learned.”
The Conference of the Americas featured 64 global experts, including a keynote by the president of Colombia, Iván Duque Márquez. More than 2,700 attendees representing 64 different countries from India and Indonesia to Finland, France, Colombia and Cambodia registered for the event. Online viewership smashed expectations: There were more than 17,000 views of the conference content, either from live streaming or accessing recorded sessions.
Various FIU experts representing colleges and units including the Stempel School of Social Work & Public Health; The Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine; the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts and the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, were also featured during the conference.
The conference dedicated an entire day to explore issues related to immunizations. A group of experts dove in-depth into COVID-19 vaccines through a virtual panel discussion.
Speakers discussed a wide range of topics including the role of immunizations; the lack of trust in possible COVID-19 vaccines; anti-science and anti-vaccine movements; the need for resources and vaccines for poverty-stricken regions and much more.
Panelists agreed that an effective vaccine will go a long way in protecting us from contracting COVID-19. However, the experts cautioned against viewing a COVID-19 vaccine – and especially the first wave of vaccines produced – as the end-all solution to the pandemic.
In fact, Dr. Peter Hotez, physician-scientist and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, explained that for the foreseeable future, a COVID-19 vaccine may need to be combined with wearing a mask, social distancing and other public health measures. The reason behind this?
“We really don’t know the performance of these vaccines and won’t fully know for a year or two,” he said.
With the world in need of COVID-19 vaccines, the experts discussed, vaccines may be released to the public even if they do not reach the ideal 70 percent efficacy the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended. The efficacy of a vaccine is the estimated percentage (based on clinical trials) of people who take the vaccine that will effectively be protected from infection because of that vaccine.
Marty explained that if a COVID-19 vaccine has a 50 percent efficacy threshold (the minimum percentage the Food and Drug Administration and WHO issued in their recommendations), people would need to continue wearing masks and social distancing because 50 percent of the people who take the vaccine would still be likely to get infected (and possibly transmit the virus).
“Many of these vaccines [early vaccines] may need boosters,” Hotez added. “New vaccines will be coming down the pike continuously. It’s going to be a slowly evolving process. The good news is that I think a year from now the world will look much better from now. And two years from now it’ll look better than one year from now. That’s the timeline we’re talking about.”
So, what do we do in the meantime?
Communication is key. The panel discussed the need to build trust in COVID-19 vaccines among the general public; the moral responsibility to communicate information about vaccines and their development; and the importance of dispelling myths and misunderstandings of anti-science and anti-vaccine movements.
“It’s not just pharmaceutical or public health leaders [who need to address the public],” said Peter Figueroa, who is the chair of a technical advisory group at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and a professor at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. “We need a variety of persons who are trusted and leaders in society to talk about the importance of vaccines.”
Dr. Cuauhtémoc Ruiz-Matus, a unit chief in the Department of Family, Health Promotion and Life Course at PAHO added, “We need to have all the data about the efficacy…to show that vaccines, in the process and production, are safe.”