The developers of the most promising coronavirus vaccines are making a concerted effort to convince people they will uphold scientific standards in their clinical trials. First, they signed what was described as a historic safety pledge. They declared they will seek emergency approval for their candidates only after a phase 3 trial is complete, and the priority would be to ensure the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals. Last week, some of them went a step further, disclosing granular protocols and yardsticks for these trials. The information is typically considered a trade secret.
History is littered with examples of what happens when scientific process is victim to public anticipation and political pressure. The earliest of this was the Cutter Incident of the mid-1950s, when tens of thousands of children in the United States were accidentally injected with a live polio virus. It was the culmination of ignored warnings, skipped safeguards and impatience. A similar tale (although here, the errors lay more in development than manufacturing) played out in 1976 when a small but statistically significant proportion of people who got a swine flu vaccine developed an autoimmune condition. The incidents are now among several cautionary tales that have fed into how vaccines, drugs and therapies are developed today.
For the leaders of some of the world’s leading powers, these tales seem to have faded from memory. Russia last month approved for public use a vaccine that is yet to complete phase 2 trials. China has begun inoculating thousands of people with its experimental jabs. The president of the United States said that a vaccine could be approved as early as October, less than a month before he faces an election. How any of this is possible till short- and medium-term safety implications of these experimental shots are determined is a question beyond the scope of scientific reasoning. It is important to insulate the worst health crisis in generations from political ambition and nationalistic bravado. The political rhetoric in India, in this regard, has been measured. It is encouraging that the health ministry has indicated that it will wait for adequate data before gambling on any vaccine, even if it is one touted by an all-weather ally. The country’s leaders must now make sure they don’t give in to the wrong examples. The best way for it is to let the scientists take the wheel.