Judging from comments I’ve heard and read, many Americans expect that a vaccine against Covid-19 will soon end the need for masks and social distancing and enable us to resume our pre-Covid lives. As one neighbor said, citing the administration’s “Warp Speed” agenda to rush a vaccine to market, “I’ll start taking the subway and going to the office in the fall when we have the vaccine.”
Alas, experts agree, such optimism is totally unrealistic. My neighbor — and the rest of us “nonessential” workers — will be lucky if we have access to a safe and effective vaccine a year from now. Here’s why.
Doctors most knowledgeable about vaccine development and the real dangers of reckless haste warn that, however promising a vaccine may seem now or months from now, premature release can do far more harm than good.
As was shown, for example, in 1955 when the original Salk polio vaccine was hastily rolled out, from rushing no good can come. A mishap in mass-producing the vaccine caused polio in 70,000 children, permanently crippling 164 of them and killing 10.
A similar mishap with a coronavirus vaccine “could backfire, increasing people’s skepticism about vaccines and vaccine development and their distrust of doctors,” Dr. Brit Trogen told me.
“Everyone wants the vaccine to be the silver bullet that gets us out of this crisis, but intense political and public pressure to release a vaccine before the science is ready could have devastating negative consequences,” said Dr. Trogen, a pediatric resident at NYU Langone Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital in New York.
Keep in mind that if one or more of the vaccines now being tested for Covid-19 should happen to cause serious illness in even a very small percentage of people, there is still no effective cure.
Experts also worry about unwarranted expectations for the effectiveness of a vaccine. No vaccine prevents illness in 100 percent of recipients, though as with the flu vaccine, people who are vaccinated may end up with milder illness. One of the Covid vaccines being tested would likely be able to prevent many cases of more serious, life-threatening infections, said Dr. Paul A. Offit, a world leader in vaccine development.