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Experts say issues such as vaccine safety, supply chains, and public trust need to be resolved before a COVID-19 vaccine is administered. Getty Images
  • Some experts are concerned the recent predictions of a COVID-19 vaccine by early next year are raising false hopes.
  • They say it will be difficult for research to be completed that assures the safety and efficacy of such a new vaccine.
  • Experts also note that the supply chain of vials, needles, and other items needs to be ramped up along with vaccine production.
  • They add that public trust of the vaccine will be a key to success.

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The pronouncements have brought hope to many pandemic-weary people in the United States as well as across the world.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, among others, has stated that the United States should have more than 100 million doses of a potential COVID-19 vaccine by early next year.

However, Fauci and other infectious disease experts caution that this prediction is an aspiration, not a promise.

“We are producing vaccine at risk, which means we are producing it even though we don’t know yet if the vaccine works,” Fauci told Healthline in an interview last Friday.

“If we are wrong and it doesn’t work, then we will have essentially wasted a few hundred million dollars. We feel it is worth the risk because the consequences of not having a vaccine ready by the winter for those who need it,” he said.

This all raises a big question among experts.

Are we raising false hopes about a COVID-19 vaccine that will cause a lot of anguish early next year if it isn’t available?

The U.S. government and governments around the world, along with businesses and even private citizens, have poured billions of dollars into funding the research for a COVID-19 vaccine.

The money has allowed more than 100 studies to move forward this year.

Experts say past research on viruses such as SARS and H1N1, along with China’s release of the sequencing of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has given researchers a leg up to move more quickly.

Indeed, Johnson & Johnson officials announced on Wednesday that the company will begin early phase clinical trials on people for their potential COVID-19 vaccine.

The company had earlier stated that those trials would begin in September.

U.S. officials are, in essence, betting on the success of the current research.

They’re manufacturing the vaccines before scientific studies are complete.

The idea is to speed up the process without skipping steps, and then hit the ground running should a vaccine make it past the approval stages.

Scientists told Healthline they support this tactical decision to premanufacture the vaccines, but they add the information given to the public should be rooted in reality.

“Earning the public trust is going to be crucial,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine in the department of health policy and a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee.

“We all know that we have a portion of our population not trusting vaccinations. We need to (message) to help people know this is a trusted process,” he said.

Part of that process, Schaffner says, can be delays and changes.

“We don’t call it ‘search.’ We call it ‘research,’” he said. “That’s because as we move forward, we often have to go back and redo.”

“We have to be realistic. Hope for the best and make sure we are doing it the right way,” Dr. Paul Goepfert, director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic (AVRC), told Healthline. “I don’t think we should say (definitively) we will have one by January 2021.”

Both Schaffner and Goepfert say Fauci has been doing a good job in his role of both working with the current administration and messaging to the public.

“I think things are going well, and he had affirmation from the process. I also think he walks a delicate line. But he always, always puts a quantifier in,” Schaffner said.

“You cannot just read half of what he says. Tony is an extraordinarily bright man. This is the sixth administration with which he has. We could not have a better person in that role. There are always natural tensions, shall we say, from the political side,” he said.

“He’s amazing,” added Goepfert. “He’s the hardest-working person I know. ‘Johnny on the Spot.’ His ability to work with different administrations. He started with Reagan and now he is with Trump. He has had to say things that have been upsetting to the administration, but he always tempers it, and it’s always the truth.”

Both experts also urge the general public to listen to and read all that is shared about the process, particularly now.

“Everything is local, and cases in the U.S. are dropping [in some areas],” Goepfert said. “That might be giving us a false sense of security. And you know, it’s difficult for the media to focus on any one thing for too long. It’s a huge challenge. We all get in the ‘echo chambers,’ and we only hear what we want to hear.”

Trust may be as important to the supply chain as glass vials, he says.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released in late May found that 1 in 4 Americans says they won’t trust a vaccine for COVID-19. Some of those surveyed specifically cite the speed of the development as a reason to fear.

And with at least 70 percent of the public needing vaccination to achieve “herd immunity,” experts say trust is going to be a vital active ingredient here.

“It is very important that any coronavirus vaccine is held to the same safety standards as any other approved vaccine in the U.S., and that safety data is widely available for examination by scientists and physicians,” said Dr. Richard Pan, a pediatrician, former University of California, Davis educator, and one of two physicians currently serving in the California legislature.

“Without confidence in the safety of the vaccine, our communities will not be able to achieve vaccination rates high enough to achieve community immunity and halt outbreaks of COVID-19,” he told Healthline.

“There needs to be widespread public acceptance of the vaccine, which would be undermined if a vaccine appears rushed, or significant side effects are not identified prior to approval,” Pan said.

Pan, who has been a vocal vaccination proponent, says he already sees the seeds of doubt being planted.

“Anti-vaccine extremists are already spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories about coronavirus vaccines, even though none is approved and there is little data yet on these vaccines because the clinical trials are pending,” he said.

Pan doubts that a vaccine can be ready by early January.

“Even a vaccine ready today for stage 3 testing, which no vaccine is at present, at best would only be able to prove that it was efficacious for 6 months by the end of the year, which is 6 months from now,” he explained.

Schaffner has found he’s had to back up information with more details, even in his own home.

“I realize how difficult this is (to keep the public apprised) and still not overpromise,” he said. “Often, after something is on the news, I have to do some explaining right in my own home.”

Schaffner notes that if a vaccine is quickly approved, the task of delivering tens of millions of doses also means securing and/or producing as many needles, glass vials, vial stoppers, printed labels, and boxes.

“It’s like the ventilators and [personal protective equipment],” he said. “Supply is going to be vital.”

So, how do we know when the hope is real?

The researchers say to learn when you can and look to the true experts.

“There are always natural tensions, or shall we say, pressures from the political side,” Schaffner said.

“What we would hope for in a circumstance such as this is that they (the public and politicians) listen to us. It’s akin to a shooting conflict situation where the military is the expert. We are the generals in this war against COVID-19,” he said.

Goepfert agrees, and says he feels Fauci is the best person to be leading that messaging.

“I just hope [the White House] continues to support him,” he said. “Because we really need him.”