18 February 2021

The Atlantic: “The End of the Pandemic is Near. This is How We Win.”

How do we unblock these bottlenecks? Based on conversations with several experts and scientists, here are some big ideas to resolve each problem.

Individually, these proposals are bold, perhaps radical, and admittedly controversial. But together they form a coherent U.S. vaccination policy: The smartest way to vaccinate the most Americans by this summer is to try to vaccinate the most Americans we can right now. Solving the present supply crisis will also help alleviate hesitancy—the coming demand crisis—as skeptics will witness the tangible benefits of mass vaccination.

1. Authorization: Approve the AstraZeneca vaccine

The first out-of-the-box thing I’d do right now is release the AstraZeneca vaccine, Hotez told me.

The U.S. is sitting on tens of millions of doses of the vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and researchers at the University of Oxford. The vaccine has been authorized for emergency use in the U.K. and the European Union. But the FDA has asked the company for more clinical-trial data to confirm the drug’s efficacy, probably because AstraZeneca’s research in Brazil and the U.K. has been infamously messy.

Derek Thompson

‘Bold’ and ‘controversial’ is not how I would describe these proposals; ‘desperate’ and ‘reckless’ are closer to the truth. The rise of mutant variants of the coronavirus is precisely why regulatory bodies should examine vaccines more closely. AstraZeneca in particular is a poor choice for wide distribution after their mishandled trials. The articles conveniently leaves out that, while the European Medicines Agency approved it, most European countries decided not to administer it to older persons because of inconclusive trial results, and some countries such as Switzerland and South Korea declined authorization altogether.

Countries where the B1.351 variant has been detected
Thirty-two counties have reported cases of the coronavirus variant B.1.351 that first emerged in South Africa | Data as of Feb. 6; Source: Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh

Among vaccines available currently or in the near future, AstraZeneca is also the least effective against the South African mutation, to the extent that the country halted its vaccination program! This variant has already been detected in the United States. Coupled with the recent guidance from the CDC that fully vaccinated persons will no longer be required to quarantine following an exposure to someone with COVID-19, this could spark another wave of infections with this variant, spread by people vaccinated with AstraZeneca, falsely assuming they are protected.

The next proposal is simply repeating the untested regimen in effect in the UK, distributing the first dose widely while withholding the second for a later, unspecified date. A very risky decision, leaving large numbers of people partially protected, potentially vulnerable to new viral strains or even sources of new mutations, and heavily criticized by medical specialists. Who are the sources arguing in favor quoted in the article: two economists! Who is Dr. Peter Hotez? A professor from a Republican state (Texas) who regularly appears on Fox News!

The more this crisis continues, the more I feel my level of trust in journalism drops. It looks like most articles are written not because the journalist has something to say or an investigation to present, but simply because he has a deadline and has to submit something. It matters less if it’s clear or true, if it helps the public to make sense of a complicated situation; instead we get served a clickbait headline with no actual substance to generate buzz and controversy on Twitter for a couple of hours, until the journalist returns with the next controversy. I wish journalists would be frank with their audience about the real difficulties in vaccine manufacturing and distribution, and advise people to have patience and adhere to the simple rules guaranteed to work agaist transmission, instead of promoting unproven theories from random self-proclaimed ‘specialists’.

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