I fought in Desert Storm, the massive military offensive in the Persian Gulf. Although it began nearly 30 years ago, I see parallels between decisions I made on the battlefield and decisions all Americans will have to make about a COVID-19 vaccine.
As a platoon leader and a military intelligence officer, I knew all too well the biological threat we faced from Iraq. Saddam Hussein had weaponized anthrax and loaded it into SCUD missiles. My troops, colleagues and I walked around for weeks wearing protective gear, prepared for an attack with a biological or other weapon of mass destruction.
Because I had earned a Master of Science in Public Health before going on active duty, I had enough academic background to understand how the vaccine worked and how it would stimulate an immune response. I also knew that the Food and Drug Administration had approved this vaccine for use against cutaneous anthrax, but not the inhalational anthrax we worried about.
I remember trying to decide whether to take the vaccine, despite being generally in favor of immunization. The Department of Defense recommended that military personnel deployed in Desert Storm take the vaccine because of the immediate threat we faced. I ultimately took it and felt comfortable with that decision, having had enough information to weigh the risks.
Even so, during a nighttime SCUD attack, I stood in the desert, watching PATRIOT and SCUD missiles collide overhead. I wondered if the SCUD contained anthrax, and if it did, whether the anthrax vaccine I had taken would protect me.
Today, the biological threat comes from COVID-19. In the race to produce much-needed vaccine, companies and governmental agencies are just now running clinical trials and determining how vaccine candidates could affect human beings.
On Wednesday, Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Robert Redfield told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that a potential vaccine likely will be available in limited quantities by the end of this year. But it may be only 70% effective.
The CDC also announced a plan to make COVID-19 vaccinations free to all Americans. But Redfield said it will take “six to nine” months to vaccinate most of the public.
Americans distrust rush for vaccine
National polls tell us what we are up against in building public confidence. A USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll found that two-thirds of U.S. voters say they will not try to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it becomes available, and one in four say they will never get it.
The survey found Americans distrustful of the Trump administration’s push to speed up its development of a vaccine and have the FDA issue an Emergency Use Authorization before researchers and manufacturers prove that the vaccine is safe and effective.
According to the Health and Human Services website, the FDA can issue EUAs during public health emergencies to help make medical products available more quickly than would ordinarily be the case. But that is only if “the known and potential benefits of the product, when used to diagnose, prevent, or treat the identified disease or condition, outweigh the known and potential risks of the products.”
Recently, AstraZeneca, one of the pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine for COVID-19, temporarily suspended one of its clinical trials because of one adverse event. This is by no means unusual during a clinical trial.
What is unusual is that a group of biopharmaceutical companies felt compelled to release a statement trying to reassure the public that they would not take shortcuts or produce a vaccine before they felt it was ready and safe — knowing of the concerns that President Donald Trump may be pressuring the FDA to provide an EUA for a vaccine to be delivered shortly before Election Day in November.
Help public make informed decision
While there may be enough information for the FDA to authorize emergency use, it will likely not be enough to help Americans make an informed decision about whether to take the new COVID-19 vaccine.
With bombs exploding around me, I felt that the benefits of taking the anthrax vaccine outweighed the risks associated with unnecessary immunization. I believed the threat was great enough to warrant taking this protective action.
When it comes to COVID-19, if it means waiting another month or two to finish clinical trials, and get the FDA the information they need to fully authorize use of the vaccine, I believe fewer Americans will be left to wonder whether the vaccine they just took will protect them and their families.
Asha M. George, who holds a doctorate in public health, is executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. She is a former U.S. Army military intelligence officer and paratrooper.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Building public trust in COVID-19 vaccine is critical part of mission