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."
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."