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US regulators eventually could safely approve vaccines for COVID-19 if the process is kept free of political pressure regarding time lines, study protocols, and safety standards, expert witnesses told a House panel investigating the process on Wednesday.
The career staff of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be counted on to appropriately weigh whether a vaccine should be cleared for use in preventing COVID-19, witnesses, including Paul A. Offit, MD, of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight and investigations panel.
FDA staffers would object to attempts by the Trump administration to rush a vaccine to the public without proper vetting, as would veteran federal researchers, including National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, and Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Offit said.
“If COVID-19 vaccines are released before they’re ready to be released, you will hear from these people, and you will also hear from people like Dr Francis Collins and Tony Fauci, both of whom are trusted by the American public, as well as many other academicians and researchers who wouldn’t stand for this,” he said.
“The public is already nervous about these vaccines,” said Offit, who serves on key FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committees overseeing vaccine policy. “If trusted health officials stand up and decry a premature release, the celebration by the administration will be short-lived.”
Overly optimistic estimates about a potential approval can only serve to erode the public’s trust in these crucial vaccines, said another witness, Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, in Providence, Rhode Island.
“All political leaders need to stop talking about things like time lines,” Jha told the lawmakers.
President Donald Trump has several times suggested that a COVID vaccine might be approved ahead of the November 3 election, where he faces a significant challenge from his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
In a Tuesday night debate with Biden, Trump again raised the idea of a quick approval. “Now we’re weeks away from a vaccine,” Trump said during the debate.
Trump’s estimates, though, are not in line with those offered by most firms involved with making vaccines. The most optimistic projections have come from Pfizer Inc. The drugmaker’s chief executive, Albert Bourla, has spoken about his company possibly having data to present to the FDA as early as late October about the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine.
In a September 8 interview with the Today show, Bourla said there was a 60% chance his company would meet that goal. In response to a question, he made it clear his comments applied to a potential Pfizer application, not an approval or release of a vaccine by that time.
In response to concerns about political pressures, the FDA in June issued guidance outlining what its staff would require for approval of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Pushback on Politics
Another witness at the Wednesday hearing, Mark McClellan, MD, PhD, a former FDA commissioner (2002 – 2004), pushed back on objections to a potential release of further guidance from the agency.
“Some recent statements from the White House have implied that FDA’s plan to release additional written guidance on its expectations for emergency use authorization of a vaccine is unnecessarily raising the bar on regulatory standards for authorization,” said McClellan in his testimony for the House panel. “That is not the case.”
Instead, further FDA guidance would be a welcome form of feedback for the firms trying to develop COVID-19 vaccines, according to McClellan, who also serves on the board of directors for Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson is among the firms that have advanced a COVID-19 vaccine candidate to phase 3 testing. In his role as a director, he serves on the board’s regulatory compliance committee.
Along with politics, recent stumbles at FDA with emergency use authorizations (EUAs) of treatments for COVID-19 have eroded the public’s confidence in the agency, Jha told the House panel. The FDA approved hydroxychloroquine, a medicine promoted by Trump for use in COVID, under an EUA in March and then revoked this clearance in June.
Jha said the FDA’s most serious misstep was its handling of convalescent plasma, which was approved through an EUA on August 23 “in a highly advertised and widely televised announcement including the president.
“The announcement solidified in the public conversation the impression that, increasingly with this administration, politics are taking over trusted, nonpartisan scientific institutions,” he said in his testimony.
Approving a COVID-19 vaccine on the limited evidence through an EUA would mark a serious departure from FDA policy, according to Jha.
“While we sometimes accept a certain level of potential harm in experimental treatments for those who are severely ill, vaccines are given to healthy people and therefore need to have a substantially higher measure of safety and effectiveness,” he explained.
Jha said the FDA has only once before used this EUA approach for a vaccine. That was for a vaccine against inhaled anthrax and was mostly distributed to high-risk soldiers and civilians in war zones.
COVID-19, in contrast, is an infection that has changed lives around the world. The virus has contributed to more than 1 million deaths, including more than 200,000 in the United States, according to the World Health Organization.
Scientists are hoping vaccines will help curb this infection, although much of the future success of vaccines depends on how widely they are used, witnesses told the House panel.
Debate on Approaches for Vaccine Effectiveness
In his testimony, Jha also noted concerns about COVID-19 vaccine trials. He included a reference to a September 22 opinion article titled, “These Coronavirus Trials Don’t Answer the One Question We Need to Know,” which was written by Peter Doshi, PhD, of the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, in Baltimore, and Eric Topol, MD, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. Topol is also editor-in-chief of Medscape.
Topol and Doshi questioned why the firms Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca structured their competing trials such that “a vaccine could meet the companies’ benchmark for success if it lowered the risk of mild Covid-19, but was never shown to reduce moderate or severe forms of the disease, or the risk of hospitalization, admissions to the intensive care unit or death.”
“To say a vaccine works should mean that most people no longer run the risk of getting seriously sick,” Topol and Doshi wrote. “That’s not what these trials will determine.”
There was disagreement about this point at the hearing. US Representative Morgan Griffith (R-VA) read the section of the Doshi-Topol article quoted above and asked one witness, Offit, to weigh in.
“Do you agree with those concerns? And either way, tell me why,” Griffith asked.
“I don’t agree,” Offit responded.
“I think it’s actually much harder to prevent asymptomatic infection or mildly symptomatic infection,” he said. “If you can prevent that, you are much more likely to prevent moderate to severe disease. So I think they have it backwards.”
But other researchers also question the approaches used with the current crop of COVID-19 vaccines.
“With the current protocols, it is conceivable that a vaccine might be considered effective — and eventually approved — based primarily on its ability to prevent mild cases alone,” wrote William Haseltine, PhD, president of the nonprofit ACCESS Health International, in a September 22 opinion article in The Washington Post titled, “Beware of COVID-19 Vaccine Trials Designed to Succeed From the Start.”
In an interview with Medscape Medical News on Wednesday, Haseltine said he maintains these concerns about the tests. Earlier in his career, he was a leader in HIV research through his lab at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he subsequently led a biotech company, Human Genome Sciences.
He fears consumers will not get what they might expect from the vaccines being tested.
“What people care about is if this is going to keep them out of the hospital and will it keep them alive. And that’s not even part of this protocol,” Haseltine said.