A Star Surgeon Left a Trail of Dead Patients—and His Whistleblowers Were Punished

Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, then a professor of Regenerative Medicine at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (Sweden), looks on during a plenary session at the Science of the Future international scientific conference, on September 17, 2014.

(Credit: ITAR-TASS Photo Agency / Alamy Stock Photo)


[Editor's Note: This is the first comprehensive account of the whistleblowers' side of a scandal that rocked the most hallowed halls in science – the same establishment that just last week awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. This still-unfolding saga is a cautionary tale about corruption, hype, and power that raises profound questions about how to uphold integrity in scientific research.]

When the world-famous Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm hired Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, he was considered a star surgeon and groundbreaking stem cell researcher. Handsome, charming and charismatic, Macchiarini was known as a trailblazer in a field that holds hope for curing a vast array of diseases.

It appeared that Macchiarini's miracle cure was working just as expected.

He claimed that he was regenerating human windpipes by seeding plastic scaffolds with stem cells from the patient's own bone marrow—a holy grail in medicine because the body will not reject its own cells. For patients who had trouble breathing due to advanced illness, a trachea made of their own cells would be a game-changer. Supposedly, the bone marrow cells repopulated the synthetic scaffolds with functioning, mucus-secreting epithelial cells, creating a new trachea that would become integrated into the patient's respiratory system as a living, breathing part. Macchiarini said as much in a dazzling presentation to his new colleagues at Karolinska, which is home to the Nobel Assembly – the body that has awarded the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine since 1901.

Karl-Henrik Grinnemo was a young cardiothoracic surgeon and researcher at Karolinska in 2010, when Macchiarini was hired. "He gave a fantastic presentation with lots of animation and everyone was impressed," Grinnemo says of his first encounter with Macchiarini. Grinnemo's own work focused on heart and aortic valve regeneration, also in the field of stem cell research. He and his colleagues were to help establish an interdisciplinary umbrella organization, under Macchiarini's leadership, called the Advanced Center for Translational Regenerative Medicine, which would aim to deliver cures from Karolinska's world-class laboratories to the bedsides of patients in desperate need.

Whistleblower Karl-Henrik Grinnemo and the Karolinska Institute.

(Courtesy Grinnemo)

Little did Grinnemo know that when KI hired Macchiarini, they had ignored a warning that the star surgeon had been accused of scientific misconduct by a colleague who had worked with him at the University of Florence. That blind eye would eventually cost three patients their lives in Sweden.

"A MIRACLE CURE"?

It has been said that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and it wasn't long before Macchiarini announced that he had a patient in dire need of one of the new artificial tracheas. The patient, a native of Eritrea who had emigrated to Iceland, had a slowly growing tumor on his trachea. Macchiarini had previously generated new windpipes from human donor tracheas outside of Sweden, but the Icelandic patient was the first to receive a synthetic trachea implant at Karolinska University Hospital. Macchiarini had already performed a similar procedure with decellularized donor tracheas on other patients around Europe, but not much was known at the time about their outcomes.

Of course, to justify a radical procedure such as removing a patient's trachea, one would need compelling evidence of effectiveness in animal studies, as well as an exhaustion of all other treatment alternatives. Macchiarini claimed that both conditions were met. He performed the implantation of the synthetic trachea as if he had received a hospital exemption. This is comparable to what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies as "compassionate use," a procedure performed only in extreme circumstances, usually when the patient is terminal, and when no available alternative has worked.

Macchiarini personally invited Grinnemo to watch the all-day surgery, and, once the transplant was done after 10 grueling hours, Macchiarini asked him to close the patient. Then the 36-year-old man was transferred to another hospital, where Grinnemo and other attending physicians had little opportunity to follow his long-term recovery.

Two months later, Macchiarini approached Grinnemo with an invitation to be one of multiple co-authors on a paper about the case targeted for the New England Journal of Medicine. This was a huge opportunity for a junior researcher, and Grinnemo gladly agreed to write a one-month follow-up report on the Icelandic patient's clinical condition. He consulted the patient's medical records, which described a man with an infection in one lung but otherwise doing well, and wrote up his contribution. The patient had already been transferred back to Iceland by then and was home from the hospital. It appeared that Macchiarini's miracle cure was working just as expected.

But the ground was beginning to shake.

"We cannot find one word of evidence that points to regeneration induced by stem cells."

On September 2, 2011, three months after the Icelandic patient's surgery, a professor in Leuven, Belgium sent a written warning to KI's vice chancellor, Harriett Wallberg-Henriksson, stating that Macchiarini was guilty of prior research misconduct. This letter was forwarded to the new president at KI, professor Anders Hamsten, urging him to put a halt to more synthetic trachea implants. The accusations were grave.

Professor Pierre Delaere at Kathiolieke Universiteit asserted that synthetic tracheas coated with bone marrow cells did not, as Macchiarini had claimed, transform into living tracheas. He cited "countless" failures in animal experiments and called the outcome of Macchiarini's previous human surgeries "disastrous…half the patients died. The others are in a palliative setting….We cannot find one word of evidence that points to regeneration induced by stem cells."

Once again, KI simply ignored the warning, and Grinnemo and the 24 co-authors on the splashy academic paper about the latest surgery didn't even know about it. In the meantime, the New England Journal of Medicine rejected it for lacking a longer follow-up on the patients and missing data on how well the implants had integrated with the patient's respiratory system, so Macchiarini submitted it to The Lancet instead.

And he kept performing his experimental surgeries.

Soon there was a second transplant patient, a 30-year-old American man named Christopher Lyles. After his operation at KI, he returned to the U.S and the Swedish doctors were unable to follow his progress. Three months after his surgery, they learned that he had died at his home.

Paolo Macchiarini with Christopher Lyles, the American patient on whom he performed a trachea transplant in Stockholm in 2011. Lyles died a few months later.

(Public domain)

Only four months after Lyles died, the third patient, a 22-year-old Turkish woman, received one of Macchiarini's grafts. In all three patients, Macchiarini had claimed that they were in dire straights—terminal if not for the hope of a trachea transplant, and he claimed a hospital exemption in all three cases. In fact, Grinnemo says, all three had been in stable condition before their surgeries—a reality Macchiarini did not share with his collaborators and co-authors on two academic papers about the surgeries that were subsequently published in The Lancet.

The Turkish woman's story is especially tragic. The young woman had initially undergone surgery elsewhere to fix an unrelated problem—hand sweating--but wound up with an accidentally damaged trachea that set her on a course of utter devastation. She sought help from Macchiarini, but his graft operation left her "living in hell," says Grinnemo. In intensive care afterward, her airways were producing so much mucus that they had to be cleared every four hours around the clock. The procedure "is like someone keeping your head under water every fourth hour until you almost suffocate to death. This is something that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy," says Grinnemo.

By the spring of 2013, six months after Macchiarini's operation, the graft began to collapse. Several metal stents were inserted into her airways, but each one only worked for a short while. Macchiarini decided to remove the first plastic trachea and implant a new one. It seemed she couldn't get any worse, but after the second transplant, the young woman further deteriorated. Her airway secretions only increased; she had to undergo thousands of bronchoscopies, where an instrument was pushed down her throat into her lungs, and hundreds of surgeries during her three-year stint in the intensive care unit. Her body couldn't tolerate much more.

The whistleblowers realized that, despite Macchiarini's claims of successful operations in several now-published papers, the patients had been mutilated.

Grinnemo, together with fellow KI physicians Matthias Corbascio, Oscar Simonson and Thomas Fux, who were all involved in the care of the Turkish woman, became alarmed when the Icelandic patient came back to their hospital in the fall of 2013 with similar complaints. They realized that, despite Macchiarini's claims of successful operations in several now-published papers, the patients had been mutilated.

Both the Icelandic patient and the Turkish woman were too incapacitated to speak for themselves, so in the late fall of 2013, Grinnemo and his three concerned colleagues reached out to the patients' relatives seeking permission to review their medical records. It took weeks to receive the permissions, but once they did, what they found stunned them.

The Icelandic patient had developed fistulas (holes) between the artificial trachea and his esophagus, and had been fitted with several stents. Soon his esophagus also had to be removed, which Macchiarini was aware of. He should have reported these complications in the articles on which he was lead author, Grinnemo contends, and also should have informed his co-authors, each of whom had been responsible for writing up discrete sections of the papers. But Macchiarini had described each transplant as a success and had greatly exaggerated, if not outright lied, about how each patient had fared.

THE WHISTLEBLOWERS FIGHT BACK

Grinnemo and several other suspicious colleagues decided to launch an investigation. The result was a 500-page report identifying the synthetic tracheas as the problem and revealing that Macchiarini had falsified data and suppressed critical information in his reporting. He had even invented biopsies of the grafts, claiming that the marrow cells had populated them with functioning epithelial cells, while there was no real evidence of the patients' cells growing to line the tracheas.

The whistleblowers also discovered that Macchiarini had never received ethical clearance from Sweden's Human Ethical Review Board, nor had he gotten approval for his plastic tracheas from the Medical Product Agency, the Swedish counterpart to the FDA. He had relied entirely on his ability to do the surgeries under the hospital exemption, which he made everyone believe that he had obtained thanks to his star power.

What Macchiarini was doing, the investigators realized, was experimentation on living human subjects; he had circumvented the normal oversight protocols that exist to protect such subjects.

At a procedural meeting with his colleagues, including Dr. Ulf Lockowandt, the head of Karolinska University Hospital's Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Macchiarini dismissed the patients' complications as "manageable."

But among the large interdisciplinary team whose members had knowledge only of their own discrete specialties, doubts about Macchiarini's technique were festering. Complications in the patients only worsened when the tracheas inevitably began to collapse. There was a bursting open of sutures, holes in tissues adjacent to the implants, the disintegration of tissues that clogged bronchial passages. In far more than half of all the patients Macchiarini had operated on in several countries, patients died a lingering and agonizing death.

The last thing the whistleblowers expected was for the full weight of the institution to come crashing down against them.

When Grinnemo and his fellow investigators dug all this up, they decided they had to report it to the very top of Karolinska, to the institute's president, Anders Hamsten, so that he could stop Macchiarini from performing any further transplants. The last thing the whistleblowers expected was for the full weight of the institution to come crashing down against them.

"THEY WANTED TO SILENCE EVERYTHING"

KI had ample reason to sweep criticisms of Macchiarini under the rug. Up to 100 patients were about to be recruited for an international clinical study in which Macchiarini would do his implants—a nightmarish prospect considering his track record. But KI stood to receive millions of dollars in a government grant to conduct the study across Europe and Russia.

Still other incentives existed for KI to suppress Macchiarini's record. Plans were underway to establish a stem cell center in Hong Kong with over $45 million provided by a wealthy Chinese businessman. At the center, Macchiarini would be able to do his trachea transplants on patients in Asia. And in addition to the financial incentives to keep Macchiarini's brand associated with KI, many high-powered individuals were involved in his initial recruitment and didn't want their reputations tarnished, Grinnemo says. KI not only ignored the whistleblowers' allegations; punishment against them was swift and decisive.

On March 7, 2014, Grinnemo and the other whistleblowers met with Dr. Hamsten, in addition to two of Macchiarini's supervisors and the director of KI's Regenerative Network. They presented their findings and requested an official investigation by KI, including scrutiny of the now-six published research papers in which Macchiarini had claimed the success of his implants in humans. The whistleblowers also told the leadership about some rat studies Macchiarini had published in a prestigious journal that appeared to rely on falsified data.

Instead of the welcoming reception they expected, the room bristled with hostility. "I basically forced them to agree to an investigation," Grinnemo says, "but it was a very tough meeting. The feeling I got was that they wanted to silence everything and that they would continue to silence me and the other whistleblowers. We were already feeling the backlash."

From the left, whistleblowers Matthias Corbascio, Oscar Simonson, Thomas Fux and Karl-Henrik Grinnemo.

(Courtesy Grinnemo)

Previously, Grinnemo had confronted Macchiarini with questions about patients he had implanted in Russia prior to his stint at Karolinska. "Paolo Macchiarini realized we were onto something and he became very angry. He said he would do everything in his power to make my life miserable," Grinnemo recalls.

Macchiarini made good on his threat by filing a complaint about Grinnemo with the Swedish Research Council, the main funder of research in Sweden. At the time, Macchiarini and Grinnemo had jointly submitted a grant application on an aortic valve regeneration project, which the Council had approved. Macchiarini suddenly complained that Grinnemo had stolen his data on aortic valve regeneration, even though, unlike Grinnemo, Macchiarini was not a heart surgeon and had conducted no research on heart structures. In reality, all of the data had been generated by Grinnemo. The Council did a review and concluded that Grinnemo had not stolen the data, but Macchiarini spread rumors throughout KI that the young researcher was guilty of scientific misconduct. "He wanted to discredit me because he knew I was dangerous and he wanted to stop anyone from believing me," Grinnemo says.

In spite of the findings from the Council that he had committed no scientific misconduct, KI opened an investigation—not of Macchiarini, but of Grinnemo himself. It soon became clear that KI also wanted to discredit Grinnemo and to silence any possible rumors about Macchiarini's conduct. The whistleblowers continued to push forward, however, and over a period of several weeks they wrote to president Hamsten four times, asking that KI investigate the deadly transplants still being promoted by Macchiarini as some kind of miracle cure.

After four written requests, Hamsten replied that if the whistleblowers had concerns about Macchiarini, they should contact their supervisors or write a formal complaint. But the whistleblowers had already contacted several individuals in supervisory roles who had made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with the affair. It was obvious that KI would resist any investigation of Macchiarini and that no one, outside of the whistleblowers, wanted to take any responsibility for what could amount to a major scandal at one of the world's most powerful academic institutions.

The whistleblowers had another hostile and unproductive meeting with several doctors at KI with whom they shared a letter they had written to the journal Nature Communications, which published Macchiarini's article on rat experimentation, urging them to investigate whether he had falsified the data. Once again, the whistleblowers met with a wall of resistance. Grinnemo was now discredited because of the aortic valve grant application, the doctors reminded him, and no investigation or retraction of the Nature Communications article would be pursued.

In June 2014, KI made its retaliation against Grinnemo official by putting its legal counsel in charge of its investigation of his grant application. The university's ethical board then concluded that Grinnemo should have informed Macchiarini more clearly that he submitted the application to the Swedish Research Council and that he should have obtained a written acceptance from Macchiarini before proceeding with the application. KI could not find Grinnemo guilty of research misconduct, but accused him of "carelessness" regarding the usage of data—which was his own data all along.

A few years later, Grinnemo was totally cleared by both the Central Ethical Review Board and KI. However, the rumors surrounding the investigation and the finding that he hadn't "used data correctly" in a grant application had done their damage to his reputation. Since then, he has not received a single research grant. "You can't appeal the findings," Grinnemo says. "I don't know if I will ever get more research money. I'm totally dead."

The whistleblowers made multiple appeals to Dr. Lockowandt, the head of the Department of Cardiothoracic surgery, for an investigation into Macchiarini's implants, but they were stonewalled from the beginning. Lockowandt did nothing.

"The heads of departments at the KUH and KI didn't actually have that much power," Grinnemo explains. "Dr. Lockowandt thought he was fighting for his own career and position. He's basically a good person who decided to go the route of an administrator, and if you have conflicts with your superiors, your career will be over." In other words, a real investigation of Macchiarini's record could not happen with so much money and prestige riding on the continued presence of the star surgeon.

By August 11, 2014, the whistleblowers had made repeated requests of Dr. Hamsten for a meeting to present the data inconsistencies between Macchiarini's patients' medical records and what he had reported in numerous articles, all published in prestigious medical journals. When they finally received the answer—a cold instruction to submit a written notification to the heads of their departments—it was clear that KI was giving them the runaround.

But rather than simply ignore the whistleblowers, KI apparently decided to double down, trying to discredit them in an intimidation campaign.

KI even went so far as to force the chief medical officer of Karolinska University Hospital, Johan Bratt, to report the whistleblowers to Swedish police, claiming that they violated the law and the patients' privacy when they went through the patients´ charts and submitted their appeals for investigation to KI and the Central Ethical Review Board. KI claimed that their report revealed the identities of patients, even though they had been careful to anonymize all the information. The police interrogated several of the whistleblowers and concluded that they had done no wrong, but the incident made it clear how low KI would sink in its desire to harass them.

"You can't appeal the findings. I don't know if I will ever get more research money. I'm totally dead."

In private, Grinnemo's colleagues supported him, but feared coming forward out of the fear of losing their jobs. Grinnemo himself was in a tough spot. "I knew it would be difficult for me to do research but I hoped my position as a surgeon was secure," he says. "But after the New York Times article, I realized even that position was not as safe as I had thought."

THE MEDIA CATCHES ON -- WITH A PRICE

On November 24, 2014, The New York Times published a front-page story about Paolo Macchiarini based on the whistleblowers' investigation, which had leaked to the press. Officials at KI suspected one or more of the whistleblowers of being the leakers, but the publicity forced the top brass to at least appear to act. The next day they asked Dr. Bengt Gerdin, a professor of surgery at Sweden's Uppsala University, to do an investigation of Dr. Macchiarini. It's hard not to conclude that, after months of stonewalling on an institutional investigation, the Times article compelled them to do something. But KI still did not take any of the pressure off of Grinnemo and his three fellow whistleblowers.

One by one, each was informed that he would receive a formal warning from Dr. Lockowandt, the head of the cardiothoracic clinic, alleging that they had violated patient privacy by reading medical records. The whistleblowers countered that they had informed consents. They also asked for a meeting with Lockowandt and KI's attorneys, to which they brought a union representative and someone from the Swedish version of the American Medical Association. The union representative informed KI's attorneys that the doctors were actually required by law to consult a patient's medical records when the patient's life is in danger. Not doing so would have been a crime. Karolinska backed off on the formal warnings (which would have been the last step before actual termination) after that. But they found other ways to retaliate.

One whistleblower, Oscar Simonson, had been offered a residency at Karolinska University Hospital, but that offer was withdrawn without explanation. Grinnemo had expected to receive an advisor position in cardiothoracic surgery, but that promotion also evaporated. In addition, the number of surgeries he was tapped to perform was reduced and he was relegated to doing the "less popular" standard heart surgeries that began late in the afternoon and evenings.

The grinding day-to-day pressure on the whistleblowers never let up. On December 19, 2014, Dr. Lockowandt informed all four that they had been on the verge of being fired, but that hospital attorneys changed their minds at the last minute. By then not only were their reputations in tatters, but they had invested an estimated 10,000 hours of labor investigating Macchiarini's misconduct, appealing to KI, and defending themselves against KI's harassment.

When interviewed for this article, Grinnemo said, "I have never had a single day of vacation from this situation. In addition to dealing with it, I've been doing surgery and taking care of patients. I've had trouble sleeping, and it has affected my family. I haven't been able to focus on my family, and I feel guilty toward my kids." Of all the whistleblowers, Grinnemo seems to have received the brunt of the backlash.

KI was finally pushed to further action by yet more negative coverage of the Macchiarini affair in the media. In January 2015, Swedish National Television aired an exposé covering the Macchiarini surgeries and the desperate plight of the patients. In response, the Swedish public demanded that KI make a course correction. On February 19, KI withdrew all of its threats of formal warnings to the whistleblowers.

As the press event began, KI called the heads of the whistleblowers' departments to tell them to make sure the four didn't attend.

However, progress was incremental. On April 16, KI's ethical committee, which had done its own investigation, acquitted Macchiarini of allegations of scientific misconduct. This is the same university ethical board that had reprimanded Grinnemo over his usage of data in the aortic valve grant application.

The whistleblowers maintain that throughout the summer of 2015, KI was still far more focused on covering up the Macchiarini affair than on getting to the bottom of it. On May 13, the professor from Uppsala submitted the results of his independent investigation, in which he concluded that seven out of seven published articles in which Macchiarini was the lead author entailed the fabrication of data.

KI ignored the report. In August 2015, KI's president announced that Macchiarini had been cleared of all charges of scientific misconduct and that, magically, ethical approvals existed for the patient from Iceland. Macchiarini got a reprimand for being "a little sloppy" in his published descriptions of his patients. Then KI, eager to placate the public and salvage its reputation, held a press conference to announce the presumed innocence of its star surgeon.

As the press event began, KI called the heads of the whistleblowers' departments to tell them to make sure the four didn't attend, according to Grinnemo.

"They seemed to think we would come crashing in to the press conference and make a scene. It's ridiculous, but that's what they thought," says Grinnemo.

Around this time, KI asked that the whistleblowers compile and forward all of their correspondence with the independent investigator on the grounds that they were suspected of manipulating his investigation. The accusation went nowhere; the whistleblowers had barely spoken with him.

Then came a request from KI's IT department for the whistleblowers to compile and submit all of their emails for the preceding year. They were simply told that "an anonymous person" had made the request.

Throughout 2015, KI continued to go after the whistleblowers aggressively. That August, they were so discouraged that they felt they would never obtain any additional grants from the Swedish Research Council or any other funding organizations, and that their academic careers were over. To add insult to injury, a Swedish newspaper published an article defending Macchiarini and concluding that he was not guilty of violating the Helsinki Declaration, a statute put into effect after World War II protecting all humans from unauthorized medical experimentation.

THE TIDE TURNS, BUT REDEMPTION IS ELUSIVE

Then in November, they received a request from a Swedish filmmaker to be interviewed about the Macchiarini affair. Not knowing what angle the film was expected to take, they each put in hours in front of the camera. They wouldn't know the results of their interviews until January 2016, when the three-part documentary, "The Experiments," aired on Swedish television. The film documented the tortuous death of a Russian woman and the suffering of other patients who had received Macchiarini's implants.

That same month, a devastating article on Paolo Macchiarini was published in the American magazine Vanity Fair. Titled "The Celebrity Surgeon Who Used Love, Money and the Pope to Scam an NBC News Producer," the article revealed Macchiarini as an even more prolific fabulist and liar than anyone had remotely suspected. Not only did he fabricate data for multiple scientific papers, he had also lied about everything from his alleged medical training and celebrity connections to his personal relationship status.

Ironically, the woman who ultimately dismantled Macchiarini was Benita Alexander, a former producer for NBC News who was at one point engaged to marry him in a lavish ceremony that Macchiarini promised would be officiated by Pope Francis. Except that he didn't know the Pope, and he was already married to one woman and living with another.

Her story of heartbreak infuriated the public. The full list of people who had believed Macchiarini's almost countless fabrications may never be known—a tribute to his considerable personal charisma. But after the "The Experiments" and the Vanity Fair article, the public had had enough of Paolo Macchiarini. They demanded that KI's president step down and that Macchiarini be fired.

TV producer Benita Alexander appeared as a guest on Dr. Oz's show on February 14th, 2018 to discuss Dr. Macchiarini's deception. "He railroaded my life," she said.

(Screenshot from www.doctoroz.com)

In February 2016, there was a cascade of resignations and firings at KI. First, president Anders Hamsten stepped down. Then several top KI officials, including the General Secretary of the Nobel Assembly, the Dean of Research, and an advisor to KI's president, were either fired or stepped down. On March 3, several members of the board were replaced. The whistleblowers received an award for coming forward by an organization called Transparency International, but instead of heaving a sigh of relief, they only felt a continued sense of foreboding.

"We all felt very vulnerable because we knew that KI would retaliate in some way," says Grinnemo. A fellow whistleblower, Dr. Corbascio, gave an interview on a prime time news program saying that KI was a corrupt institution and should apologize to the patients' families and even pay them for their suffering. After that, both he and another colleague came under intensified scrutiny at work. They say that their supervisors, who were deeply involved in collaborations with Macchiarini, watched everything they did, apparently looking for a reason to fire them.

Grinnemo and Simonson both left KI to work for Uppsala University. But the lasting effects of the scandal followed them there. They still couldn't obtain any grants for new research, and other scientists at KI and elsewhere were unwilling to collaborate with them for fear of their own work being "tainted" by association.

On March 23, 2016, Paolo Macchiarini was finally sacked by KI. Still, the whistleblowers couldn't claim victory.

"Our aim," says Grinnemo, "was not to get him sacked but to stop the grafts, and we knew he would continue to do them in other countries. The clinical trial aiming to recruit 100 or so patients hadn't been halted. We tried to warn the Russian authorities and the EU grant office, and wanted them to stop the grant to Macchiarini. There was no response, so at that time we didn't know if the clinical trial would go forward."

Still, there was reason to hope. News of Macchiarini's scientific fraud, not to mention his personal debacle with Benita Alexander, had made its way around scientific circles in Germany and Britain, where a new investigation began.

Eventually, the entire board at Karolinska was replaced. Under its new president, the institute issued a decree this past summer finding the now thoroughly disgraced Macchiarini guilty of scientific misconduct, and concluding that six of his research papers should be retracted.

But in a cruelly ironic twist, KI took the whistleblowers' own investigation and turned it against them. KI's report found Grinnemo also guilty of scientific misconduct for apparently falling short in the care of the Icelandic patient, even though his role in the case had been minimal. It was like a punch in the gut, because the judgment cast Grinnemo as equally blameworthy to Macchiarini. It also failed to recognize that he had long ago not only withdrawn his name from the offending paper, but lobbied for years to have it retracted.

"This sends the message that whistleblowers in research will be punished. That's a serious problem."

The KI report also established the new category of "blameworthy" to describe two of the whistleblowers for their roles as co-authors in some of the papers. The whistleblowers did not receive a chance to respond to the new accusations before a decision was made to publicly reprimand them.

That decision can't be appealed.

Simonson told Science Magazine, "This sends the message that whistleblowers in research will be punished. That's a serious problem."

These days, Macchiarini is lying low but still publishing his supposed stem cell research, most recently on baboons. A paper published in March of this year in the Journal of Biomedical Materials lists his affiliation as Kazan Federal University in Russia, but in April 2017, the university fired him. He's rumored to be living in Italy and couldn't be reached for this article. He was investigated for criminal activity in Sweden and the case was closed without charges, but Grinnemo says that another prosecutor is now considering whether to bring charges against him for "aggravated manslaughter."

At KI, only Karin Dahlman Wright, who was the Institute's acting president during several months of these events, responded to a request for comment, but she claimed a near-total unawareness of the whistleblowers' narrative. Other officials there declined to be interviewed.

KI's clinical trial that was aiming to recruit new patients for biologically engineered tracheas is no longer happening. The European Commission posted on their research portal that the trial ended on March 31, 2017, stating: "Grant Agreement terminated."

As for Grinnemo, Simonson, Corbascio and Fux, they are still fighting for their careers. Grinnemo is currently suing KI for a chance to defend himself against its accusations of scientific misconduct. He's also claiming damages for lost grant funding, thousands of hours spent defending himself, and harm to his reputation. Whether he will prevail in court remains to be seen.

"KI did a very good job of destroying our careers," says Simonson. "They didn't do anything else well, but they did a very thorough job of that."

Eve Herold
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.
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Making Sense of Science features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This monthly podcast is hosted by journalist Kira Peikoff, founding editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.

Episode 1: "COVID-19 Vaccines and Our Progress Toward Normalcy"

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan of NYU shares his thoughts on when we will build herd immunity, how enthusiastic to be about the J&J vaccine, predictions for vaccine mandates in the coming months, what should happen with kids and schools, whether you can hug your grandparents after they get vaccinated, and more.

Transcript:


KIRA: Hi, and welcome to our new podcast 'Making Sense of Science', the show that features interviews with leading experts in health and science about the latest developments and the big ethical questions. I'm your host Kira Peikoff, the editor of leaps.org. And today, we're going to talk about the Covid-19 vaccines. I'm honored that my first guest is Dr. Art Caplan of NYU, one of the world's leading bio-ethicists. Art, thanks so much for joining us today.


DR. CAPLAN: Thank you so much for having me.

KIRA: So the big topic right now is the new J&J vaccine, which is likely to be given to millions of Americans in the coming weeks. It only requires one-shot, it can be stored in refrigerators for several months. It has fewer side-effects and most importantly, it is extremely effective at the big things, preventing hospitalizations and deaths. Though not as effective as Pfizer and Moderna in preventing moderate cases, especially potentially in older adults with underlying conditions. So Art, what's your take overall, on how enthusiastic Americans should be about this vaccine?

DR. CAPLAN: I'm usually enthusiastic. The more weapons, the better. This vaccine, while maybe, slightly less efficacious than the Moderna and the Pfizer ones, is easier to make, is easier to ship. It's one-shot. You know, here there's already been problems of getting people to come back in for their second shots. I would say 5... 7% of people don't show up even though you remind them and you nag them, they don't come back. So a one-shot option is great. A one-shot option that's easy to, if you will, brew up in your rural pharmacy without having to have special instructions is great. And I think it's gonna really facilitate herd-immunity, meaning, we'll see millions and millions and millions of doses of the Janssen vaccine out there as an option, I'm gonna say, summer.


KIRA: Great. And to be fair, it's worth mentioning that the J&J vaccine was tested in clinical trials after variants began to circulate, and it's only one-shot instead of two, like the other vaccines, and it gets more effective over time. So is it really fair to directly compare its efficacy to the mRNA vaccines?


DR. CAPLAN: Well, you know, people are gonna do that. And one issue that'll come up ethically is people are gonna say, "Can I choose my vaccine? I want the most efficacious one. I want the name brand that I trust. I don't want the new platform. I like Janssen's 'cause it's an older, more established way to make vaccines or whatever." Who knows what cuckoo-cockamamie reasons they might have. To me, you take what you can get, it'll be great. It's way above what we normally would expect, those 95% success rates are off the charts. Getting something that's 70% effective, it's perfectly wonderful. I wish we had flu shots that were 70% effective.

And the other thing to keep in mind is we're gonna see more mutations, we're gonna see more strains. That's just a reality of viruses. So they'll mutate, more strains will appear, we can't just say, "Oh my goodness. There's a South-African one or the California one or the UK one. We better... I don't know, do something different." We're just gonna have to basically resign ourselves, I think, to boosters. So right now, take the vaccine. I'm almost tempted to say, "Shut up and take the vaccine. Don't worry about choosing."

Just get what you can get. If you live in a rural community and all they have is Janssen, take it. If you're in another country and all they ship to you is Janssen, take it. And then we'll worry about the next round of virus mutations, if you will, when we get to the boosters. I'm more concerned that these things aren't gonna last more than a year or two than I am that they're not gonna pick up every mutation.


KIRA: So on that note, shipping to rural places or low-income countries that lack the ultra-cold freezers that you need for the super effective mRNA vaccines, the Janssen vaccine seems like a really great option, but are we going to encounter a potential conflict of people saying, "Well, there's "poor or rich vaccines," and one is slightly less effective than the other." And so are we gonna disenfranchise people and undermine their actual willingness to take the vaccine?


DR. CAPLAN: Well, it's interesting. I think the first problem is gonna be, "I have vaccine and I don't have any vaccine," between rich and poor countries. Look, the poor countries are screaming to get vaccine supply sent to them. I think, for example, Ghana received recently 600 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine. It was freed up by South Africa, which decided they didn't wanna use it 'cause they thought there was "a better vaccine" coming. So even among the poorer nations or the developing nations, some vaccines are getting typed as the not-as-good or the less-desirable... We've already started to see it.


But for the most part, the rich countries are gonna try and vaccinate to herd immunity, you can argue about the ethics of whether that's right, before they start sharing. And I think we'll have haves and have-nots, herd immunity produced in the rich countries, Japan, North America, Europe, by the end of the year anyway. And still some countries floundering around saying, "I didn't get anything," and what are you gonna do?


KIRA: And I know you said to people, which is a very memorable quote, "just shut up and take the vaccine, whatever you can get, whatever is available to you now, do it." But inevitably, as you mentioned, some people are going to say, "Well, I just wanna wait to get the best one possible." When will people have a choice in vaccines, do you think?


DR. CAPLAN: I don't think you'll see that till next year. I think we're gonna see distribution according to where the supply chains are that the vaccine manufacturers use. So if I use McKesson and they ship to the Northeast, and that's where my vaccine goes, that's what's available there. If I'm contracted to Walmart and they buy Janssen, that's what you're gonna see at the big box store. I don't think you're really gonna get too much in the way of choice until next year, when then they're gonna say they ship three different kinds of vaccine, and I can offer you one dose or two dose... One of them lasts a year, one of them lasts 18 months. I don't think we're gonna have the informed choice until next year.

KIRA: Okay. And right now the steep demand is outstripping the supply, and there's been a lot of pressure put on the vaccine makers to ramp up as quickly as possible. Of course, they say that they're doing that and the government is pressuring them to do that, but when do you think we'll cross over to the point where vaccine hesitancy is a bigger issue than vaccine demand?


DR. CAPLAN: Yeah. So this is a really interesting issue. I'm glad you asked me this because I think it's got good foresight. The big ethics fight now is scarcity and who goes first, and the ethicists, including me, are having a fine old time arguing about healthcare workers versus policemen versus people who work for UPS versus somebody who's working at the drug store. Who's more important? Why are they more important? Who's essential?


Actually, I think most of that is nonsense, because what we've learned is that you can't do much in the way of micro-allocation, the system strains, and it doesn't work. You've gotta use some pretty broad categories like over 65, still breathing and working, and a kid. The kid will go last, 'cause we don't have the data, everybody else should get in line and the over 65s should probably be first 'cause they're at high risk. We can't do this. We stink at the micro-management of vaccine supply, plus it encourages cheating. So everybody's out there with vaccine hunters, vaccine tourism, bribing, lying, dressing up like a grandmother to get a vaccine. My favorite one was some rich people in Vancouver flew up to the Yukon and pretended to be Inuit aboriginal people to get a vaccine. That will all pass.


We'll have enough vaccine by the summer, more or less, that the issue will then be, "How are we gonna get to herd immunity or at least maximal immunity, knowing that we don't have data on kids?" People under 18, I think are something like 20% of our population. That means the best you could do is 80%. The other population still could be passing the virus, kids here or Europe or wherever. Well, the military refusal rate that I just saw was 30% saying no. I've heard nursing home staff rates, nursing attendants, nursing aids up at 40% to 50% saying no. So these are huge refusal rates, people are nervous about how it works, the vaccine. Some of them are like, "Well Art you take it. If you're still alive in six months, then maybe I'll take it, but I wanna see that it really works and it's safe." And other people say, "We don't wanna be exploited. We don't trust the government, whatever, to offer us these vaccines."


I'm gonna answer that was a long-winded way of saying we're gonna see some mandates, we're gonna see some coercions start to show up in the vaccine supply, because I think, for example, the military. The day one of these license gets... Excuse me, one of these vaccines get licensed, right now they're on an emergency approval, collect data for three or four more months, get the FDA to formally license the thing. I'd say between five minutes and 10 minutes, the military will be mandating. They have no interest in your objection, they have no interest in your choice, they know what the mission is. It's traditionally, we're gonna get you as healthy as we can to fight a war.


The fact that you say, "Gee, I might die." They kind of say, "Yeah, we noticed that, but that's in the military culture. We fight wars and do stuff like that." So they'll be mandating, I think, very rapidly. And I think healthcare workers will. I think most hospitals are gonna say 50% refusal rate among this nursing group? Forget it. We can't risk that. Nursing homes have been devastated by COVID. They're not gonna have aids out there unvaccinated. The only thing holding up the mandates right now is that we don't have full licensure. We have emergency use approvals, and that's good.


But it's a little tough to mandate without full license. The day we get it, three months, four months, we're gonna start to see mandates. And I'll make one more prediction, as long as I'm in a crystal ball mode. It won't be the government at that point that says, you have to be vaccinated. It'll be private business, 'cause they're gonna say, "You know what? Come on my cruise ship, 'cause everybody who works here is vaccinated." "Come on into my bar, everybody who works here is vaccinated." They're gonna start to use it as an advertising marketing lure. "It's safe here. Come on in." So I think they'll say, "If you wanna work on an airline as a flight attendant, you get vaccinated. We have vaccine proof. You can show it on your iPhone, on your whatever, you have a card that you did it." And so I think we'll see many businesses moving to vaccinate so that they can bring their customers back in.


KIRA: So private businesses, that's one thing, because people do not have to patronize those places if they don't wanna get vaccinated. But of course, this is gonna open up a can of worms with schools. Public schools, if they mandate teacher vaccines and you have to send your kid to school and you have to go to work at a school. What happens then?


DR. CAPLAN: Well, schools are gonna be at the end of the line. That's where we have the least data. So I don't think we're gonna see school mandates on kids, maybe not till next year. But we already have school mandates on kids. They were the first group to feel the force of mandates, because it turns out that measles and mumps and whooping cough are easy to get at school, sneezing and coughing on one another. Some states have added flu shots. Many states, California, Maine, New York have actually eliminated exemptions. The only way out for those kids is if they have a health reason. They're not even allowing religious or so-called philosophical or personal choice exemptions. COVID vaccines will just line up right next to those things.

Teachers will demand it, the pressure will be there. We'll have a lot of information by next year on safety. I'm even gonna say people are gonna be less tolerant of non-vaccinators. Now it's sort of like, "Wow. Yeah, I guess." But this time next year, if you haven't vaccinated, people are gonna come to your house and board it up and make you stay inside.


KIRA: Well, given how much we're so dependent on these vaccines to get us back to a regular life, I can understand the sentiment. What is your take on the big controversy right now, just going back towards the present day a little bit more on having kids in schools. Is that something you support before all the teachers have been vaccinated?


DR. CAPLAN: I do, but I have a problem with the definition of a teacher and a school. So by the way, some people that I know, friends of mine have said, "Well, I'm a teacher, I'm a yoga instructor. I'm a teacher, I'm an aerobics instructor. So I should get priority access to vaccination." I don't think that's what we meant by teacher. And here's the difference in schools. I live in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Up the street for me is a very fancy private elementary school. It has endless grounds, open classrooms. If there are eight kids in a class, I'll pass out. It is great. I wish I went to college there. It's a wonderful set up. Do they need to vaccinate everybody? Probably not, they're all sitting six feet apart, everybody in there is gonna mask, they have huge auditoriums. They never have to come in contact.

I've been in some other schools in the Bronx. No ventilation, no plumbing, 35 kids in a class, the teacher's 65. And you sort of think, "Boy, I'd wanna have vaccinate everybody in sight in this place because unless we re-haul the buildings and downsize the class size, people are gonna get sick in here."


They probably were getting sick anyway before COVID, but now COVID makes it worse. They're probably getting the flu or colds at nine times the rate that they were in Ridgefield, Connecticut. So my point is this, high school kids doing certain things, they can come in on a mixed schedule three days a week, two days a week, do their thing, they know how to mask. Am I worried about vaccinating there? Not too much. Elementary school kids need psychosocial development, need to learn social skills, sometimes going to schools that aren't that wonderful. Yeah, let's vaccinate them. So even though I was complaining a bit about micro-management and trying to parse out, here I think you need to do it. I think you're probably gonna say college, I don't know that you have to vaccinate there. High schools, 50/50. Elementary school, let's do them first.


KIRA: Got it. And one more question on kids before I wanna move on, there's been talk about whether it's necessary before kids are allowed to get this vaccine to have the FDA go to full approval with the full bulk of data necessary for that versus just an emergency authorization for the general population, given that kids are at so much lower risk than adults. But then of course, it'll take a lot more time, I imagine, to get the kids the vaccines. What's your take on that?

DR. CAPLAN: We historically have demanded higher levels of evidence to do anything with a kid, and I think that's gonna hold true here too. I don't think you're gonna see emergency-use authorization for people under 18. Maybe they'd cut it and say, "We'll do it 12-18," but just looking at the history of drug development, vaccine development, people are really leery of taking risks with kids and appropriately so. Kids can't even make their own decision. I can decide if I wanna take an emergency-use vaccine, if I think it's too iffy I don't take it right now. So up to me to weigh the risk-benefit. I don't think so. I think you'll see licensing required before we really get it, at least 12 and under. Let's put it there. And I'm not worried about the safety or efficacy of these things in kids. I think there's no reason, given the biological mechanisms, to think they're gonna be any different. But it's gonna be pretty tough pre-licensure to impose anything.


KIRA: And when do you think that licensure for kids under 12 could come?


DR. CAPLAN: Well, two groups of people are now being studied, pregnant women, the studies just launched. They'll probably be done sufficiently by the end of the year. Kids for full licensure, spring next year.


KIRA: Okay. And because this is a big question for a lot of women that I know and women in general who are pregnant, what would you say to them now, where we don't have the data yet on the safety, but they have to decide and they can't wait six or nine more months?

DR. CAPLAN: Vaccinate yesterday. Literally, I think the COVID virus is too dangerous, I think it's dangerous to the mom, I think it's dangerous to the fetus. It is an unknown, but boy, I would bet on the vaccine more than I would taking my chances with the virus.


KIRA: Got it. So let's pivot a little bit and talk about some of the big open questions around the vaccines that we're starting to get some early evidence about. For one thing, do they prevent transmission and not just symptomatic disease. And I think it's worth pointing out for our audience here that there is a big difference between preventing symptoms and preventing infections, as lots of asymptomatic people know. And we have a lot of new real-world evidence from Israel, from Scotland, reporting that even asymptomatic infections are greatly reduced by the Pfizer vaccine, for example. What is your take on how this new data is going to change guidance around post-vaccination behaviors?


DR. CAPLAN: Yeah. What do we got in the podcast? Seven or eight hours to go? That's a tough one. It's complicated. But trying to over-simplify a little bit. So there is a difference, and this has gotten confusing, I fear. Some vaccines prevent you from getting infected at all. It looks like the Pfizer and the Moderna fall into that category. That's great, 'cause no matter what else, it probably means you're gonna reduce transmission, 'cause if you can't be infected, I don't know how you're gonna give it to somebody else. So I'll bet that that's a transmission reduction. Looks like Johnson & Johnson, unclear. Seems to prevent bad symptoms and death but not moderate disease, and it isn't clear that it stops you from getting infected. So that may become an issue in terms of how we strategically approach when we have enough vaccine of the different types. We may wanna say, "Look, in some environments, we've gotta control spread... Nursing home. We wanna see the Moderna there. We wanna see the Pfizer there."


In other situations, we just wanna make sure you're not dead, let's get the Janssen thing out there. And that'll be great. I'll tell you... I'll give you an example from my own current existence. So I've been pretty cautious... As I said, I live in Ridgefield, Connecticut. I have a house, pretty roomy, but I haven't left it very often. I'm willing to take the chance to go shopping. I'll confess I'm even willing to take the chance wearing a mask to go to the drug store and I've had a hair-cut or two. So I've been not hyper-cautious, but cautious. I don't invite people over that I don't know where they've been, so to speak. But now I'm vaccinated, and my wife is fully vaccinated. And the other night for the first time, we went out to an indoor restaurant. Probably haven't done that in 10 months... No, I don't know, six months. But a long time...


KIRA: I hope you really enjoyed that first meal out, 'cause that's something that I dream about. Boy, where am I gonna go and what am I gonna order?


DR. CAPLAN: Yeah. We went to the fanciest restaurant in town, as a matter of fact, and they were social distancing and everybody was masked and the wait staff. But I figure, good enough for me. If the thing isn't gonna kill me, if I was just told I was gonna have a risk of being sick for three days or something, that's good enough for me. I don't wanna infect somebody else. So I'll still mask and do that, I'm not sure. But I'm absolutely ready to say, and in fact, I've scheduled two trips. We're gonna take a trip to Florida, we're gonna take a trip to North Carolina in March and April. I'm figuring even then, things will be better. But everybody's gonna have choices like that to make. It'll be really interesting. If I'm Tony Fauci or one of our big public health guys, I don't want anybody going anywhere, I'm risk-averse, until maybe 2027. I think it'll be controlled and eliminated... We'll have lots of data and everything will be great. I'm a little bit more, shall we say, individual choice-oriented, making individual risk things, like I said. As long as I'm responsible to others.


I don't wanna make anybody else sick, but if I am ready to take the chance of just being sick for a few days, and I believe the vaccines available will keep me out of the hospital and keep me out of the Morticians building. Okay, I'm ready to do it. So each one of us is gonna have to make a value decision, this is what I find interesting, about what's normal. It isn't science. It isn't medicine. It's ethics. You're gonna have to decide how much risk do you wanna take. Do you wanna be a jerk to your neighbor, if you could still have a teeny chance of infecting them? Am I willing to live in a world where COVID is around but it's kinda rare? I know kids are still transmitting, but it's not really a huge risk. That's the kind of value choice that each of us will be faced with.


KIRA: I really appreciate your emphasis on individual choice and values here and letting... Basically allowing people to make those judgments based on their circumstances for themselves. If you're not deathly afraid of getting a mild cold-type illness, then I can understand why you wanna fly or go to a restaurant, and other people might not be comfortable with any risk at all, and they're perfectly welcome to stay home.


DR. CAPLAN: Or they may say, "I'm 80, I have nine chronic diseases. A mild illness still freaks me out." Okay, I get that. I'm perfectly respectful of that. It's interesting. I think we've been used to public health messaging, and people have this attitude that at some point, Fauci or the head of the CDC, somebody's gonna show up on TV and say, "All clear, everything's over, back to normal, we've declared victory over the enemy. It's armistice day." Whatever. It isn't gonna work like that is my prediction. It's gonna be a slow creep, different people deciding, "I'm safe enough, I'm wandering out." Other people say, "No, no, not ready." Or somebody saying, "I'm pregnant. I'm staying in. I don't care what's going on. I'm not gonna take that risk." I think people will be surprised that there isn't going to be a national day of resolution or something. [chuckle]


KIRA: Right. It's more about these individual behaviors and over time, letting people decide what to do. So for example, if you had grandkids and they were not vaccinated, but you are, would you hug them, would you get close to them, how would you behave and how do you think they should behave around you?


DR. CAPLAN: So I'd be still nervous about them transmitting, but I'm also a very strong believer in my vaccine. So yes, I would hug them, and yes, I would have them come to visit. And that's probably gonna happen actually fairly soon. But their parents aren't vaccinated yet. And so I'm still nervous that maybe better not to do a lot of social mingling right now. But yeah, people have said to me, "My grandmom is 94. I don't know how long she's gonna be here. You think if I'm vaccinated it's okay to pay a visit." I'm gonna start to say, "Yeah, I get that."


KIRA: And I think one thing that's lost in these discussions of safety is also the aspect of benefits to human life and why we even live in the first place. We don't live lives of complete safety. We drive, we fly, we do things that are risky, but we take those risks, because it's worth it. So I think that should be part of the discussion overall, not just safety, period.


DR. CAPLAN: And not just saving lives. So ski slopes, there are a lot of orthopedic clinics at the bottom of big ski slopes, and sending a message like, "You can break bones here." But people say, "I wanna do it, I enjoy it." Okay, I'm not sure all the time that we should factor all of that into our pooled insurance plan, but that's a fight for another day. Nonetheless, I would... You know something, I would pay for it 'cause I like to encourage people to enjoy themselves. So I have my bad habits, they have their bad habits. I think it's sort of a wash in a certain way. But more to your point, I think if you look out there and say, there are some areas where we don't let you choose. You must put your kid in a car seat. A kid can't make a decision, the thing is very effective, really saves their lives, they should have a life ahead of them, and we're gonna force it. And I'm all for that.


In other instances, I might go into the restaurant. I think it's part of the general, "Am I gonna drive a car, am I gonna cross a busy street... " As you said, there are many things I have to do where I have to think about the risk-benefit. I may make a lousy calculation and underestimate what it means to get in my car and drive in terms of risk relative to getting hit by lightening or some other risks, but that's a little bit more for me.


KIRA: So that's a really thought-provoking conversation, but I wanna switch for a minute to another question mark around the vaccines besides transmission, is the long-term studies of their effects on the immune system. And one thing that I've noticed some experts are concerned about is the fact that a lot of the people in the placebo groups have dropped out of the trials and gotten the vaccine because ethically you can't withhold the vaccinations from these volunteers, but at the same time, that could be hurting our ability to compare the vaccine's long-term effects against people who haven't had the vaccine for a long time. So how significant is this issue in your mind?


DR. CAPLAN: Big. Some people actually proposed that we not let them drop out, we not tell the subjects in these big trials of vaccines if they were in the placebo group. Can't do that. It's clearly unethical... Achieved consensus on that decades ago, with various studies where the researcher said, "We don't have to tell the subjects that there's a treatment." Tuskegee did that, for example, the horrible study in the early, late '60s, early '70s, where they didn't tell people there was a cure and kept the study going of venereal disease, but there have been many others since. We already know you gotta give them the option. Some people may stay in anyway, but not enough to allow the study to really have integrity. So I think current studies are likely to fall apart and we won't get answers in the way we're used to with randomized trials to the long-term effects or even to the how long does it last question.


We need to build a system that can follow people. We can't rely on them being in an observed clinical trial. We have to start to say, "You register, we're gonna check on you every year to see how you're doing." That's gotta be done. And one other provocative idea, I pushed it long ago, challenge studies. Deliberately infect a small group of people, hopefully healthy people that choose to do it with mild COVID and then see what the vaccine does in them and then get an answer faster if you study them over time, they volunteered knowingly to get exposed this way. I think you're gonna see some challenge studies done particularly to compare vaccines. There are still more vaccines coming, maybe some of them will last longer, cheaper, safer, I don't know. The only way you're gonna study the next round of vaccines is in a challenge study. You're never getting anybody to sign up to be in a placebo control randomized trial.


KIRA: So that was actually my next question, that the UK just approved the first ever challenge study to infect the volunteers on purpose with the virus. Now, the UK has often been much more progressive in doing medical research than the US. Do you think the US will ever get to that point or are we just gonna rely on other countries to do that for us?


DR. CAPLAN: I think we won't get there. We're so conservative, so litigation conscious. People are freaked out that if somebody got sick and died in a challenge study, it would bankrupt the sponsor. I think the UK is on the right path, but I don't really think we're gonna follow.


KIRA: Okay, well, I hope that they can do the work that we really need. And I'm grateful that there are other countries that are more permissive of risk-taking and doing the controversial studies that are required.


DR. CAPLAN: Ironically, if you don't do the challenge studies, the only other way you're gonna get to do big-scale randomized placebo trials is in the poorest countries that can't get anything. And that makes it an awful lot like exploitation, taking advantage, as opposed to choice. But that's where you'd go, you'd say, "Oh, I got this new vaccine, I'll test it out in Sierra Leone and they don't have anything anyway. So better that half of them get the vaccine than not." And I still think the challenge study makes more ethic sense.


KIRA: Yeah, absolutely. That would really be a shame to be put in that position instead of just allowing people to decide. We let people sign up for the army where they might die. What's the ethical difference with signing up for a potentially dangerous study, but if you're young and healthy, the risk is low?


DR. CAPLAN: By the way, the risk from COVID to say, 18 to 35-year-olds, who's who you'd be looking at, is about the same as donating a kidney, which we also allow all the time.


KIRA: Right, right. Great point. Before we finish up here, I just wanna quickly touch on, of course, the big elephant in the room, which we all have to deal with, unfortunately, which is the variants. So I wanna talk about where we stand. I've heard some vaccine experts recently say, like Paul Offit, for example, has said he doesn't expect a fourth surge due to this, but others are more cautious and take the flip side saying, "This is the calm before the storm. We're about to see another huge explosion." California has recently reported a new strain as accounts for maybe potentially 50% of cases now, and it could be 90% by the end of March. But we're seeing such big declines in the numbers in hospitalizations, in cases. So what should people make of these conflicting messages?


DR. CAPLAN: There's an attitude in medicine that many doctors take toward things like incipient or new prostate cancer, sometimes toward breast cancer, or at least lumps. It's called watchful waiting. You pay attention. You watch what's going on. But you don't do anything right away. I would still get vaccinated, I would still take what I could get. I still believe that it's likely that these vaccines are gonna provide some protection, if not against infection, then at least against the worst symptoms and the worst chances of dying because they're really gonna boost up the basic immune system, which should be able to start to fight against viruses.


That said, could we wind up with some virulent new strain that evades the current vaccine platforms? Yes. Is it likely? I don't think so. But what it does mean is get ready to get boosters because the response to new strains that have been a result of viral mutations is you gotta adjust your vaccine. That's what we'll do. I hope it doesn't send us back into quarantine and isolation and distancing and all the rest of it as our only control. I'm hoping that the manufacturers can roll out boosters more quickly than the first round of vaccines.


KIRA: And the FDA has just said that the vaccine developers will not need to start over with new clinical trials to these boosters. So that will greatly expedite the process. And do you think that's the right call?


DR. CAPLAN: Yes, absolutely. You're not changing the fundamental nature of the vaccine platform, you're just tweaking, if you will, which chemistry responds to the virus. So yeah, I do.

KIRA: And one question then that necessarily everyone is gonna wonder is, "Well, if I got the J&J vaccine, can I get an mRNA booster?" Can you mix and match? Is that gonna work for your immune system?


DR. CAPLAN: Yeah. We don't have any idea. And I wouldn't do that right away. I know some countries are thinking about that to get more, if you will, use out of a limited supply. I'd say wait three months and do it the right way, where the data is in evidence. I'm not worried about people getting a second shot of something different and dropping dead. I'm just worried that it won't work. [chuckle] So I'm not a fan of mix and match. You can do it in some studies, by the way. You could do it in some challenge studies and get a faster answer than you would having to try and do this in 30,000 people over a year. But no, I don't think that's a good way to go. And I'm not a big fan of one-shot strategies either. I think, what we know is that the second shot really kicks your immune system into high gear and that's what you want for real protection. So I know why people say it but I wouldn't advocate for it.


KIRA: Right. And for my last question. One of our big themes this year that we'll be following all throughout the year at leaps.org is our progress towards an eventual return to life and return to normalcy. So I have to ask that question to you. Given everything that you know and that we've discussed today, when do you think our lives and society will start to look normal again, with schools, and restaurants, and businesses open, people are flying and gathering without fear, traveling, etcetera?


DR. CAPLAN: I think you're gonna see a lot of that this summer. There's gonna be enough vaccine out there, even if the epidemiologists aren't 100% happy. As I said, I think a lot of people are gonna say, "I'm happy enough, good enough for me. I'm going to sports and I'm flying, and I'm taking a vacation." And we'll be outside again. Remember we had the ability to eat outdoors and congregate less when the weather's better around the whole country, and I think that will open up Europe and the US in addition. What I'm worried about is if we had to go back in the fall to a more controlled environment, either 'cause a new strain appeared, or just because things weren't as efficacious as we hoped they'd be. But I think summer is gonna be good this year.


KIRA: Well, I hope you're right. I hope your crystal ball is working today. [chuckle]


DR. CAPLAN: [chuckle] And if it's not working right, email Kira. Don't talk to me.


KIRA: Yeah, I cannot be held liable for this. Thank you Art for a fascinating discussion. And thanks to everyone for listening. If you like this show, follow Making Sense of Science to hear new episodes coming once a month. And if you wanna give us feedback, we'd love to hear from you. Get in touch on our website, leaps.org. And until next time, thanks everyone.

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

Leading medical and scientific experts will discuss the latest developments around the COVID-19 vaccines at our March 11th event.

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

EVENT INFORMATION

DATE:

Thursday, March 11th, 2021 at 12:30pm - 1:45pm EST

On the one-year anniversary of the global declaration of the pandemic, this virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines. Planned topics include the effect of the new circulating variants on the vaccines, what we know so far about transmission dynamics post-vaccination, how individuals can behave post-vaccination, the myths of "good" and "bad" vaccines as more alternatives come on board, and more. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.

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Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.