Can Radical Transparency Overcome Resistance to COVID-19 Vaccines?
When historians look back on the COVID-19 pandemic, they may mark November 9, 2020 as the day the tide began to turn. That's when the New York-based pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that clinical trials showed its experimental vaccine, developed with the German firm BioNTech, to be 90 percent effective in preventing the disease.
A week later, Massachusetts biotech startup Moderna declared its vaccine to be 95 percent effective. By early December, Great Britain had begun mass inoculations, followed—once the Food and Drug Administration gave the thumbs-up—by the United States. In this scenario, the worst global health crisis in a century was on the cusp of resolution.
Yet future chroniclers may instead peg November 9 as the day false hope dawned. That could happen if serious safety issues, undetected so far, arise after millions of doses are administered. Experts consider it unlikely, however, that such problems alone (as opposed to the panic they might spark) would affect enough people to thwart a victory over the coronavirus. A more immediate obstacle is vaccine hesitancy—the prospect that much of the populace will refuse to roll up their sleeves.
To achieve "herd immunity" for COVID-19 (the point at which a vaccine reduces transmission rates enough to protect those who can't or won't take it, or for whom it doesn't work), epidemiologists estimate that up to 85 percent of the population will have to be vaccinated. Alarmingly, polls suggest that 40 to 50 percent of Americans intend to decline, judging the risks to be more worrisome than those posed by the coronavirus itself.
COVID vaccine skeptics occupy various positions on a spectrum of doubt. Some are committed anti-vaxxers, or devotees of conspiracy theories that view the pandemic as a hoax. Others belong to minority groups that have historically been used as guinea pigs in unethical medical research (for horrific examples, Google "Tuskegee syphilis experiment" or "Henrietta Lacks"). Still others simply mistrust Big Pharma and/or Big Government. A common fear is that the scramble to find a vaccine—intensified by partisan and profit motives—has led to corner-cutting in the testing and approval process. "They really rushed," an Iowa trucker told The Washington Post. "I'll probably wait a couple of months after they start to see how everyone else is handling it."
The COVID crisis has spurred calls for secretive Data Safety and Monitoring Boards to come out of the shadows.
The consensus among scientists, by contrast, is that the process has been rigorous enough, given the exigency of the situation, that the public can feel reasonably confident in any vaccine that has earned the imprimatur of the FDA. For those of us who share that assessment, finding ways to reassure the hesitant-but-persuadable is an urgent matter.
Vax-positive public health messaging is one obvious tactic, but a growing number of experts say it's not enough. They prescribe a regimen of radical transparency throughout the system that regulates research—in particular, regarding the secretive panels that oversee vaccine trials.
The Crucial Role of the Little-Known Panels
Like other large clinical trials involving potentially high-demand or controversial products, studies of COVID-19 vaccines in most countries are supervised by groups of independent observers. Known in the United States as data safety and monitoring boards (DSMBs), and elsewhere as data monitoring committees, these panels consist of scientists, clinicians, statisticians, and other authorities with no ties to the sponsor of the study.
The six trials funded by the federal program known as Operation Warp Speed (including those of newly approved Moderna and frontrunner AstraZeneca) share a DSMB, whose members are selected by the National Institutes of Health; other companies (including Pfizer) appoint their own. The panel's job is to monitor the safety and efficacy of a treatment while the trial is ongoing, and to ensure that data is being collected and analyzed correctly.
Vaccine studies are "double-blinded," which means neither the participants nor the doctors running the trial know who's getting the real thing and who's getting a placebo. But the DSMB can access that information if a study volunteer has what might be a serious side effect—and if the participant was in the vaccine group, the board can ask that the trial be paused for further investigation.
The DSMB also checks for efficacy at pre-determined intervals. If it finds that the vaccine group and the placebo group are getting sick at similar rates, the panel can recommend stopping the trial due to "futility." And if the results look overwhelmingly positive, the DSMB can recommend that the study sponsor apply for FDA approval before the scheduled end of the trial, in order to hurry the product to market.
With this kind of inside dope and high-level influence, DSMBs could easily become targets for outside pressure. That's why, since the 1980s, their membership has typically been kept secret.
During the early days of the AIDS crisis, researchers working on HIV drugs feared for the safety of the experts on their boards. "They didn't want them to be besieged and harassed by members of the community," explains Susan Ellenberg, a professor of biostatistics, medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of Data Monitoring Committees in Clinical Trials, the DSMB bible. "You can understand why people would very much want to know how things were looking in a given trial. They wanted to save their own lives; they wanted to save their friends' lives." Ellenberg, who was founding director of the biostatistics branch of the AIDS division at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), helped shape a range of policies designed to ensure that DSMBs made decisions based on data and nothing else.
Confidentiality also shields DSMB members from badgering by patient advocacy groups, who might urge that a drug be presented for approval before trial results are conclusive, or by profit-hungry investors. "It prevents people from trying to pry out information to get an edge in the stock market," says Art Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University.
Yet the COVID crisis has spurred calls for DSMBs to come out of the shadows. One triggering event came in March 2020, when the FDA approved hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19—a therapy that President Donald J. Trump touted, despite scant evidence for its efficacy. (Approval was rescinded in June.) If the agency could bow to political pressure on these medications, critics warned, it might do so with vaccines as well. In the end, that didn't happen; the Pfizer approval was issued well after Election Day, despite Trump's goading, and most experts agree that it was based on solid science. Still, public suspicion lingers.
Another shock came in September, after British-based AstraZeneca announced it was pausing its vaccine trial globally due to a "suspected adverse rection" in a volunteer. The company shared no details with the press. Instead, AstraZeneca's CEO divulged them in a private call with J.P. Morgan investors the next day, confirming that the volunteer was suffering from transverse myelitis, a rare and serious spinal inflammation—and that the study had also been halted in July, when another volunteer displayed neurological symptoms. STAT News broke the story after talking to tipsters.
Although both illnesses were found to be unrelated to the vaccine, and the trial was restarted, the incident had a paradoxical effect: while it confirmed for experts that the oversight system was working, AstraZeneca's initial lack of candor added to many laypeople's sense that it wasn't. "If you were seeking to undermine trust, that's kind of how you would go about doing it," says Charles Weijer, a bioethicist at Western University in Ontario, who has helped develop clinical trial guidelines for the World Health Organization.
Both Caplan and Weijer have served on many DSMBs; they believe the boards are generally trustworthy, and that those overseeing COVID vaccine trials are performing their jobs well. But the secrecy surrounding these groups, they and others argue, has become counterproductive. Shining a light on the statistical sausage-makers would help dispel doubts about the finished product.
"I'm not suggesting that any of these companies are doing things unethically," Weijer explains. "But the circumstances of a global pandemic are sufficiently challenging that perhaps they ought to be doing some things differently. I believe it would be trust-producing for data monitoring committees to be more forthcoming than usual."
Building Trust: More Transparency
Just how forthcoming is a matter of debate. Caplan suggests that each COVID vaccine DSMB reveal the name of its chair; that would enable the scientific community, as well as the media and the general public, to get a sense of the integrity and qualifications of the board as a whole while preserving the anonymity of the other members.
Indeed, when Operation Warp Speed's DSMB chair, Richard Whitley, was outed through a website slip-up, many observers applauded his selection for the role; a professor of pediatrics, microbiology, medicine and neurosurgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he is "an exceptionally experienced and qualified individual," Weijer says. (Reporters with ProPublica later identified two other members: Susan Ellenberg and immunologist William Makgoba, known for his work on the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative.)
Caplan would also like to see more details of the protocols DSMBs are using to make decisions, such as the statistical threshold for efficacy that would lead them to seek approval from the FDA. And he wishes the NIH would spell out specific responsibilities for these monitoring boards. "They don't really have clear, government-mandated charters," he notes. For example, there's no requirement that DSMBs include an ethicist or patient advocate—both of which Caplan considers essential for vaccine trials. "Rough guidelines," he says, "would be useful."
Weijer, for his part, thinks DSMBs should disclose all their members. "When you only disclose the chair, you leave questions unanswered," he says. "What expertise do [the others] bring to the table? Are they similarly free of relevant conflicts of interest? And it doesn't answer the question that will be foremost on many people's minds: are these people in the pocket of pharma?"
Weijer and Caplan both want to see greater transparency around the trial results themselves. Because the FDA approved the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines with emergency use authorizations rather than full licensure, which requires more extensive safety testing, these products reached the market without the usual paper trail of peer-reviewed publications. The same will likely be true of any future COVID vaccines that the agency greenlights. To add another level of scrutiny, both ethicists suggest, each company should publicly release its data at the end of a trial. "That offers the potential for academic groups to go in and do an analysis," Weijer explains, "to verify the claims about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine." The point, he says, is not only to ensure that the approval was justified, but to provide evidence to counter skeptics' qualms.
Caplan may differ on some of the details, but he endorses the premise. "It's all a matter of trust," he says. "You're always watching that, because a vaccine is only as good as the number of people who take it."
Mammograms are necessary breast cancer checks for women as they reach the recommended screening age between 40 and 50 years. Yet, many find the procedure uncomfortable. “I have large breasts, and to be able to image the full breast, the radiographer had to manipulate my breast within the machine, which took time and was quite uncomfortable,” recalls Angela, who preferred not to disclose her last name.
Breast cancer is the most widespread cancer in the world, affecting 2.3 million women in 2020. Screening exams such as mammograms can help find breast cancer early, leading to timely diagnosis and treatment. If this type of cancer is detected before the disease has spread, the 5-year survival rate is 99 percent. But some women forgo mammograms due to concerns about radiation or painful compression of breasts. Other issues, such as low income and a lack of access to healthcare, can also serve as barriers, especially for underserved populations.
Researchers at the University of Canterbury and startup Tiro Medical in Christchurch, New Zealand are hoping their new device—which doesn’t involve any radiation or compression of the breasts—could increase the accuracy of breast cancer screening, broaden access and encourage more women to get checked. They’re digging into clues from the way buildings move in an earthquake to help detect more cases of this disease.
Earthquake engineering inspires new breast cancer screening tech
What’s underneath a surface affects how it vibrates. Earthquake engineers look at the vibrations of swaying buildings to identify the underlying soil and tissue properties. “As the vibration wave travels, it reflects the stiffness of the material between that wave and the surface,” says Geoff Chase, professor of engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Chase is applying this same concept to breasts. Analyzing the surface motion of the breast as it vibrates could reveal the stiffness of the tissues underneath. Regions of high stiffness could point to cancer, given that cancerous breast tissue can be up to 20 times stiffer than normal tissue. “If in essence every woman’s breast is soft soil, then if you have some granite rocks in there, we’re going to see that on the surface,” explains Chase.
The earthquake-inspired device exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
That notion underpins a new breast screening device, the brainchild of Chase. Women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside a circular hole and the nipple resting on a small disc called an actuator. The actuator moves up and down, between one and two millimeters, so there’s a small vibration, “almost like having your phone vibrate on your nipple,” says Jessica Fitzjohn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury who collaborated on the device design with Chase.
Cameras surrounding the device take photos of the breast surface motion as it vibrates. The photos are fed into image processing algorithms that convert them into data points. Then, diagnostic algorithms analyze those data points to find any differences in the breast tissue. “We’re looking for that stiffness contrast which could indicate a tumor,” Fitzjohn says.
The device has been tested in a clinical trial of 14 women: one with healthy breasts and 13 with a tumor in one breast. The cohort was small but diverse, varying in age, breast volume and tumor size.
Results from the trial yielded a sensitivity rate, or the likelihood of correctly detecting breast cancer, of 85 percent. Meanwhile, the device’s specificity rate, or the probability of diagnosing healthy breasts, was 77 percent. By combining and optimizing certain diagnostic algorithms, the device reached between 92 and 100 percent sensitivity and between 80 and 86 percent specificity, which is comparable to the latest 3D mammogram technology. Called tomosynthesis, these 3D mammograms take a number of sharper, clearer and more detailed 3D images compared to the single 2D image of a conventional mammogram, and have a specificity score of 92 percent. Although the earthquake-inspired device’s specificity is lower, it exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
The team hopes that cameras with better resolution can help improve the numbers. And with a limited amount of data in the first trial, the researchers are looking into funding for another clinical trial to validate their results on a larger cohort size.
Additionally, during the trial, the device correctly identified one woman’s breast as healthy, while her prior mammogram gave a false positive. The device correctly identified it as being healthy tissue. It was also able to capture the tiniest tumor at 7 millimeters—around a third of an inch or half as long as an aspirin tablet.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate.
When using the earthquake-inspired device, women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside circular holes.
University of Canterbury.
But more testing is needed to “prove the device’s ability to pick up small breast cancers less than 10 to 15 millimeters in size, as we know that finding cancers when they are small is the best way of improving outcomes,” says Richard Annand, a radiologist at Pacific Radiology in New Zealand. He explains that mammography already detects most precancerous lesions, so if the device will only be able to find large masses or lumps it won’t be particularly useful. While not directly involved in administering the clinical trial for the device, Annand was a director at the time for Canterbury Breastcare, where the trial occurred.
Meanwhile, Monique Gary, a breast surgical oncologist and medical director of the Grand View Health Cancer program in Pennsylvania, U.S., is excited to see new technologies advancing breast cancer screening and early detection. But she notes that the device may be challenging for “patients who are unable to lay prone, such as pregnant women as well as those who are differently abled, and this machine might exclude them.” She adds that it would also be interesting to explore how breast implants would impact the device’s vibrational frequency.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate, with the results available “before you put your clothes back on,” Chase says. The absence of any radiation is another benefit, though Annand considers it a minor edge “as we know the radiation dose used in mammography is minimal, and the advantages of having a mammogram far outweigh the potential risk of radiation.”
The researchers also conducted a separate ergonomic trial with 40 women to assess the device’s comfort, safety and ease of use. Angela was part of that trial and described the experience as “easy, quick, painless and required no manual intervention from an operator.” And if a person is uncomfortable being topless or having their breasts touched by someone else, “this type of device would make them more comfortable and less exposed,” she says.
While mammograms remain “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that can be used in combination with mammography.
Fitzjohn acknowledges that “at the moment, it’s quite a crude prototype—it’s just a block that you lie on.” The team prioritized function over form initially, but they’re now planning a few design improvements, including more cushioning for the breasts and the surface where the women lie on.
While mammograms remains “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that is good at excluding breast cancer when used in combination with mammography, has good availability, is easy to use and is affordable. There is the possibility that the device could fill this role,” Annand says.
Indeed, the researchers envision their new breast screening device as complementary to mammograms—a prescreening tool that could make breast cancer checks widely available. As the device is portable and doesn’t require specialized knowledge to operate, it can be used in clinics, pop-up screening facilities and rural communities. “If it was easily accessible, particularly as part of a checkup with a [general practitioner] or done in a practice the patient is familiar with, it may encourage more women to access this service,” Angela says. For those who find regular mammograms uncomfortable or can’t afford them, the earthquake-inspired device may be an option—and an even better one.
Broadening access could prompt more women to go for screenings, particularly younger women at higher risk of getting breast cancer because of a family history of the disease or specific gene mutations. “If we can provide an option for them then we can catch those cancers earlier,” Fitzjohn syas. “By taking screening to people, we’re increasing patient-centric care.”
With the team aiming to lower the device’s cost to somewhere between five and eight times less than mammography equipment, it would also be valuable for low-to-middle-income nations that are challenged to afford the infrastructure for mammograms or may not have enough skilled radiologists.
For Fitzjohn, the ultimate goal is to “increase equity in breast screening and catch cancer early so we have better outcomes for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.”
A promising development in science in recent years has been the use technology to optimize something natural. One-upping nature's wisdom isn't easy. In many cases, we haven't - and maybe we can't - figure it out. But today's episode features a fascinating example: using tech to optimize psychedelic mushrooms.
These mushrooms have been used for religious, spiritual and medicinal purposes for thousands of years, but only in the past several decades have scientists brought psychedelics into the lab to enhance them and maximize their therapeutic value.
Today’s podcast guest, Doug Drysdale, is doing important work to lead this effort. Drysdale is the CEO of a company called Cybin that has figured out how to make psilocybin more potent, so it can be administered in smaller doses without side effects.
The natural form of psilocybin has been studied increasingly in the realm of mental health. Taking doses of these mushrooms appears to help people with anxiety and depression by spurring the development of connections in the brain, an example of neuroplasticity. The process basically shifts the adult brain from being fairly rigid like dried clay into a malleable substance like warm wax - the state of change that's constantly underway in the developing brains of children.
Neuroplasticity in adults seems to unlock some of our default ways of of thinking, the habitual thought patterns that’ve been associated with various mental health problems. Some promising research suggests that psilocybin causes a reset of sorts. It makes way for new, healthier thought patterns.
So what is Drysdale’s secret weapon to bring even more therapeutic value to psilocybin? It’s a process called deuteration. It focuses on the hydrogen atoms in psilocybin. These atoms are very light and don’t stick very well to carbon, which is another atom in psilocybin. As a result, our bodies can easily breaks down the bonds between the hydrogen and carbon atoms. For many people, that means psilocybin gets cleared from the body too quickly, before it can have a therapeutic benefit.
In deuteration, scientists do something simple but ingenious: they replace the hydrogen atoms with a molecule called deuterium. It’s twice as heavy as hydrogen and forms tighter bonds with the carbon. Because these pairs are so rock-steady, they slow down the rate at which psilocybin is metabolized, so it has more sustained effects on our brains.
Cybin isn’t Drysdale’s first go around at this - far from it. He has over 30 years of experience in the healthcare sector. During this time he’s raised around $4 billion of both public and private capital, and has been named Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Before Cybin, he was the founding CEO of a pharmaceutical company called Alvogen, leading it from inception to around $500 million in revenues, across 35 countries. Drysdale has also been the head of mergers and acquisitions at Actavis Group, leading 15 corporate acquisitions across three continents.
In this episode, Drysdale walks us through the promising research of his current company, Cybin, and the different therapies he’s developing for anxiety and depression based not just on psilocybin but another psychedelic compound found in plants called DMT. He explains how they seem to have such powerful effects on the brain, as well as the potential for psychedelics to eventually support other use cases, including helping us strive toward higher levels of well-being. He goes on to discuss his views on mindfulness and lifestyle factors - such as optimal nutrition - that could help bring out hte best in psychedelics.
Doug Drysdale full bio
Doug Drysdale twitter
Cybin development pipeline
Cybin's promising phase 2 research on depression
Johns Hopkins psychedelics research and psilocybin research
Mets owner Steve Cohen invests in psychedelic therapies
Doug Drysdale, CEO of Cybin