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."
You are driving along the highway and see an electronic sign that reads: “3,238 traffic deaths this year.” Do you think this reminder of roadside mortality would change how you drive? According to a recent, peer-reviewed study in Science, seeing that sign would make you more likely to crash. That’s ironic, given that the sign’s creators assumed it would make you safer.
The study, led by a pair of economists at the University of Toronto and University of Minnesota, examined seven years of traffic accident data from 880 electric highway sign locations in Texas, which experienced 4,480 fatalities in 2021. For one week of each month, the Texas Department of Transportation posts the latest fatality messages on signs along select traffic corridors as part of a safety campaign. Their logic is simple: Tell people to drive with care by reminding them of the dangers on the road.
But when the researchers looked at the data, they found that the number of crashes increased by 1.52 percent within three miles of these signs when compared with the same locations during the same month in previous years when signs did not show fatality information. That impact is similar to raising the speed limit by four miles or decreasing the number of highway troopers by 10 percent.
The scientists calculated that these messages contributed to 2,600 additional crashes and 16 deaths annually. They also found a social cost, meaning the financial expense borne by society as a whole due to these crashes, of $377 million per year, in Texas alone.
The cause, they argue, is distracted driving. Much like incoming texts or phone calls, these “in-your-face” messages grab your attention and undermine your focus on the road. The signs are particularly distracting and dangerous because, in communicating that many people died doing exactly what you are doing, they cause anxiety. Supporting this hypothesis, the scientists discovered that crashes increase when the signs report higher numbers of deaths. Thus, later in the year, as that total mortality figure goes up, so do the percentage of crashes.
Boomerang effects happen when those with authority, in government or business, fail to pay attention to the science. These leaders rely on armchair psychology and gut intuitions on what should work, rather than measuring what does work.
That change over time is not simply a function of changing weather, the study’s authors observed. They also found that the increase in car crashes is greatest in more complex road segments, which require greater focus to navigate.
The overall findings represent what behavioral scientists like myself call a “boomerang effect,” meaning an intervention that produces consequences opposite to those intended. Unfortunately, these effects are all too common. Between 1998 and 2004, Congress funded the $1 billion National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which famously boomeranged. Using professional advertising and public relations firms, the campaign bombarded kids aged 9 to 18 with anti-drug messaging, focused on marijuana, on TV, radio, magazines, and websites. A 2008 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that children and teens saw these ads two to three times per week. However, more exposure to this advertising increased the likelihood that youth used marijuana. Why? Surveys and interviews suggested that young people who saw the ads got the impression that many of their peers used marijuana. As a result, they became more likely to use the drug themselves.
Boomerang effects happen when those with authority, in government or business, fail to pay attention to the science. These leaders rely on armchair psychology and gut intuitions on what should work, rather than measuring what does work.
To be clear, message campaigns—whether on electronic signs or through advertisements—can have a substantial effect on behavior. Extensive research reveals that people can be influenced by “nudges,” which shape the environment to influence their behavior in a predictable manner. For example, a successful campaign to reduce car accidents involved sending smartphone notifications that helped drivers evaluate their performance after each trip. These messages informed drivers of their personal average and best performance, as measured by accelerometers and gyroscopes. The campaign, which ran over 21 months, significantly reduced accident frequency.
Nudges work best when rigorously tested with small-scale experiments that evaluate their impact. Because behavioral scientists are infrequently consulted in creating these policies, some studies suggest that only 62 percent have a statistically significant effect. Other research reveals that up to 15 percent of desired interventions may backfire.
In the case of roadside mortality signage, the data are damning. The new research based on the Texas signs aligns with several past studies. For instance, research has shown that increasing people’s anxiety causes them to drive worse. Another, a Virginia Tech study in a laboratory setting, found that showing drivers fatality messages increased what psychologists call “cognitive load,” or the amount of information your brain is processing, with emotionally-salient information being especially burdensome and preoccupying, thus causing more distraction.
Nonetheless, Texas, along with at least 28 other states, has pursued mortality messaging campaigns since 2012, without testing them effectively. Behavioral science is critical here: when road signs are tested by people without expertise in how minds work, the results are often counterproductive. For example, the Virginia Tech research looked at road signs that used humor, popular culture, sports, and other nontraditional themes with the goal of provoking an emotional response. When they measured how participants responded to these signs, they noticed greater cognitive activation and attention in the brain. Thus, the researchers decided, the signs worked. But a behavioral scientist would note that increased attention likely contributes to the signs’ failure. As the just-published study in Science makes clear, distracting, emotionally-loaded signs are dangerous to drivers.
But there is good news. First, in most cases, it’s very doable to run an effective small-scale study testing an intervention. States could set up a safety campaign with a few electric signs in a diversity of settings and evaluate the impact over three months on driver crashes after seeing the signs. Policymakers could ask researchers to track the data as they run ads for a few months in a variety of nationally representative markets for a few months and assess their effectiveness. They could also ask behavioral scientists whether their proposals are well designed, whether similar policies have been tried previously in other places, and how these policies have worked in practice.
Everyday citizens can write to and call their elected officials to ask them to make this kind of research a priority before embracing an untested safety campaign. More broadly, you can encourage them to avoid relying on armchair psychology and to test their intuitions before deploying initiatives that might place the public under threat.
I walked through the Dong Makkhai forest-products market, just outside of Vientiane, the laid-back capital of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic or Lao PDR. Piled on rough display tables were varieties of six-legged wildlife–grasshoppers, small white crickets, house crickets, mole crickets, wasps, wasp eggs and larvae, dragonflies, and dung beetles. Some were roasted or fried, but in a few cases, still alive and scrabbling at the bottom of deep plastic bowls. I crunched on some fried crickets and larvae.
One stall offered Giant Asian hornets, both babies and adults. I suppressed my inner squirm and, in the interests of world food security and equity, accepted an offer of the soft, velvety larva; they were smooth on the tongue and of a pleasantly cool, buttery-custard consistency. Because the seller had already given me a free sample, I felt obliged to buy a chunk of the nest with larvae and some dead adults, which the seller mixed with kaffir lime leaves.
The year was 2016 and I was in Lao PDR because Veterinarians without Borders/Vétérinaires sans Frontières-Canada had initiated a project on small-scale cricket farming. The intent was to organize and encourage rural women to grow crickets as a source of supplementary protein and sell them at the market for cash. As a veterinary epidemiologist, I had been trained to exterminate disease spreading insects—Lyme disease-carrying ticks, kissing bugs that carry American Sleeping Sickness and mosquitoes carrying malaria, West Nile and Zika. Now, as part of a global wave promoting insects as a sustainable food source, I was being asked to view arthropods as micro-livestock, and devise management methods to keep them alive and healthy. It was a bit of a mind-bender.
The 21st century wave of entomophagy, or insect eating, first surged in the early 2010s, promoted by a research centre in Wageningen, a university in the Netherlands, conferences organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and enthusiastic endorsements by culinary adventurers and celebrities from Europeanized cultures. Headlines announced that two billion people around the world already ate insects, and that if everyone adopted entomophagy we could reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate climate change, and reign in profligate land and water use associated with industrial livestock production.
Furthermore, eating insects was better for human health than eating beef. If we were going to feed the estimated nine billion people with whom we will share the earth in 2050, we would need to make some radical changes in our agriculture and food systems. As one author proclaimed, entomophagy presented us with a last great chance to save the planet.
In 2010, in Kunming, a friend had served me deep-fried bamboo worms. I ate them to be polite. They tasted like French fries, but with heads.
The more recent data suggests that the number of people who eat insects in various forms, though sizeable, may be closer to several hundreds of millions. I knew that from several decades of international veterinary work. Sometimes, for me, insect eating has been simply a way of acknowledging cultural diversity. In 2010, in Kunming, a friend had served me deep-fried bamboo worms. I ate them to be polite. They tasted like French fries, but with heads. My friend said he preferred them chewier. I never thought about them much after that. I certainly had not thought about them as ingredients for human health.
Is consuming insects good for human health? Researchers over the past decade have begun to tease that apart. Some think it might not be useful to use the all-encompassing term insect at all; we don’t lump cows, pigs, chickens into one culinary category. Which insects are we talking about? What are they fed? Were they farmed or foraged? Which stages of the insects are we eating? Do we eat them directly or roasted and ground up?
The overall research indicates that, in general, the usual farmed insects (crickets, locusts, mealworms, soldier fly larvae) have high levels of protein and other important nutrients. If insects are foraged by small groups in Laos, they provide excellent food supplements. Large scale foraging in response to global markets can be incredibly destructive, but soldier fly larvae fed on food waste and used as a substitute for ground up anchovies for farmed fish (as Enterra Feed in Canada does) improves ecological sustainability.
Entomophagy alone might not save the planet, but it does give us an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how we produce and harvest protein.
The author enjoys insects from the Dong Makkhai forest-products market, just outside of Vientiane, the capital of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.
Between 1961 and 2018, world chicken production increased from 4 billion to 20 billion, pork from 200 million to over 100 billion pigs, human populations doubled from 3.5 billion to more than 7 billion, and life expectancy (on average) from 52 to 72 years. These dramatic increases in food production are the result of narrowly focused scientific studies, identifying specific nutrients, antibiotics, vaccines and genetics. What has been missing is any sort of peripheral vision: what are the unintended consequences of our narrowly defined success?
If we look more broadly, we can see that this narrowly defined success led to industrial farming, which caused wealth, health and labor inequities; polluted the environment; and created grounds for disease outbreaks. Recent generations of Europeanized people inherited the ideas of eating cows, pigs and chickens, along with their products, so we were focused only on growing them as efficiently as possible. With insects, we have an exciting chance to start from scratch. Because, for Europeanized people, insect eating is so strange, we are given the chance to reimagine our whole food system in consultation with local experts in Asia and Africa (many of them villagers), and to bring together the best of both locally adapted food production and global distribution.
For this to happen, we will need to change the dietary habits of the big meat eaters. How can we get accustomed to eating bugs? There’s no one answer, but there are a few ways. In many cases, insects are ground up and added as protein supplements to foods like crackers or bars. In certain restaurants, the chefs want you to get used to seeing the bugs as you eat them. At Le Feston Nu in Paris, the Arlo Guthrie look-alike bartender poured me a beer and brought out five small plates, each featuring a different insect in a nest of figs, sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, and chopped dried tropical fruits: buffalo worms, crickets, large grasshoppers (all just crunchy and no strong flavour, maybe a little nutty), small black ants (sour bite), and fat grubs with a beak, which I later identified as palm weevil larvae, tasting a bit like dried figs.
Some entomophagy advertising has used esthetically pleasing presentations in classy restaurants. In London, at the Archipelago restaurant, I dined on Summer Nights (pan fried chermoula crickets, quinoa, spinach and dried fruit), Love-Bug Salad (baby greens with an accompanying dish of zingy, crunchy mealworms fried in olive oil, chilis, lemon grass, and garlic), Bushman’s Cavi-Err (caramel mealworms, bilinis, coconut cream and vodka jelly), and Medieaval Hive (brown butter ice cream, honey and butter caramel sauce and a baby bee drone).
The Archipelago restaurant in London serves up a Love-Bug Salad: baby greens with an accompanying dish of zingy, crunchy mealworms fried in olive oil, chilis, lemon grass, and garlic.
Some chefs, like Tokyo-based Shoichi Uchiyama, try to entice people with sidewalk cooking lessons. Uchiyama's menu included hornet larvae, silkworm pupae, and silkworms. The silkworm pupae were white and pink and yellow. We snipped off the ends and the larvae dropped out. My friend Zen Kawabata roasted them in a small pan over a camp stove in the street to get the "chaff" off. We made tea from the feces of worms that had fed on cherry blossoms—the tea smelled of the blossoms. One of Uchiyama-san’s assistants made noodles from buckwheat dough that included powdered whole bees.
At a book reading in a Tokyo bookstore, someone handed me a copy of the Japanese celebrity scandal magazine Friday, opened to an article celebrating the “charms of insect eating.” In a photo, scantily-clad girls were drinking vodka and nibbling giant water bugs dubbed as toe-biters, along with pickled and fried locusts and butterfly larvae. If celebrities embraced bug-eating, others might follow. When asked to prepare an article on entomophagy for the high fashion Sorbet Magazine, I started by describing a clip of Nicole Kidman delicately snacking on insects.
Taking a page from the success story of MacDonald’s, we might consider targeting children and school lunches. Kids don’t lug around the same dietary baggage as the grownups, and they can carry forward new eating habits for the long term. When I offered roasted crickets to my grandchildren, they scarfed them down. I asked my five-year-old granddaughter what she thought: she preferred the mealworms to the crickets – they didn’t have legs that caught in her teeth.
Entomo Farms in Ontario, the province where I live, was described in 2015 by Canadian Business magazine as North America’s largest supplier of edible insects for human consumption. When visiting, I popped some of their roasted crickets into my mouth. They were crunchy, a little nutty. Nothing to get squeamish over. Perhaps the human consumption is indeed growing—my wife, at least, has joined me in my entomophagy adventures. When we celebrated our wedding anniversary at the Public Bar and Restaurant in Brisbane, Australia, the “Kang Kong Worms” and “Salmon, Manuka Honey, and Black Ants” seemed almost normal. Of course, the champagne helped.