The highly anticipated rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine poses ethical considerations: When will trial volunteers who got a placebo be vaccinated? And how will this affect the data in those trials?
It's an issue that vaccine manufacturers and study investigators are wrestling with as the Food and Drug Administration is expected to grant emergency use authorization this weekend to a vaccine developed by Pfizer and the German company BioNTech. Another vaccine, produced by Moderna, is nearing approval in the United States.
The most vulnerable—health care workers and nursing home residents—are deemed eligible to receive the initial limited supply in accordance with priority recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With health care workers constituting an estimated 20 percent of trial participants, this question also comes to the fore: "Is it now ethically imperative that we offer them the vaccine, those who have had placebo?" says William Schaffner, an infectious diseases physician at Vanderbilt University and an adviser to the CDC's immunization practices committee.
When a "gold-standard" measure becomes available, participants in the placebo group "would ordinarily be notified" of the strong public health recommendation to opt for immunization, says Johan Bester, interim assistant dean for biomedical science education and director of bioethics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine.
"If a treatment or prevention exists that we know works, it is unethical to withhold it from people who would benefit from it just to answer a research question." This moral principle poses a quandary for ethicists and physicians alike, as they ponder possible paths to proceed with vaccination amid ongoing trials. Rigorous trials are double-blinded—neither the participants nor the investigators know who received the actual vaccine and who got a dummy injection.
"The intent of these trials is to follow these folks for up to two years," says Marci Drees, infection prevention officer and hospital epidemiologist for ChristianaCare in Wilmington, Delaware. At a minimum, she adds, researchers would prefer to monitor participants for six months.
"You can still follow safety over a long-term period of time without actually continuing to have a placebo group for comparison."
But in the midst of a pandemic, that may not be feasible. Prolonged exposure to the highly contagious and lethal virus could have dire consequences.
To avoid compromising the integrity of the blinded data, "there are some potentially creative solutions," Drees says. For instance, trial participants could receive the opposite of what they initially got, whether it was the vaccine or the placebo.
One factor in this decision-making process depends on when a particular trial is slated to conclude. If that time is approaching, the risk of waiting would be lower than if the trial is only halfway in progress, says Eric Lofgren, an epidemiologist at Washington State University who has studied the impact of COVID-19 in jails and at in-person sporting events.
Sometimes a study concludes earlier than the projected completion date. "All clinical trials have a data and safety monitoring board that reviews the interim results," Lofgren says. The board may halt a trial after finding evidence of harm, or when a treatment or vaccine has proven to be "sufficiently good," rendering it unethical to deprive the placebo group of its benefits.
The initial months of a trial are most crucial for assessing a vaccine's safety. Differences between the trial groups would be illuminating if fewer individuals who got the active vaccine contracted the virus and developed symptoms when compared to the placebo recipients. After that point, in vaccine-administered participants, "you can still follow safety over a long-term period of time without actually continuing to have a placebo group for comparison," says Dial Hewlett Jr., medical director for disease control at the Westchester County Department of Health in New York.
Even outside of a trial, safety is paramount and any severe side effects that occur will be closely monitored and investigated through national reporting networks. For example, regulators in the U.K. are investigating several rare but serious allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine given on Tuesday. The FDA has asked Pfizer to track allergic reactions in its safety monitoring plan, and some experts are proposing that Pfizer conduct a separate study of the vaccine on people with a history of severe allergies.
As the FDA eventually grants authorization to multiple vaccines, more participants are likely to leave trials and opt to be vaccinated. It is important that enough participants choose to stay in ongoing trials, says Nicole Hassoun, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she directs the Global Health Impact program to extend medical access to the poor.
She's hopeful that younger participants and individuals without underlying medical conditions will make that determination. But the departure of too many participants at high risk for the virus would make it more difficult to evaluate the vaccine's safety and efficacy in those populations, Hassoun says, while acknowledging, "We can't have the best of both worlds."
Once a safe and effective vaccine is approved in the United States, "it would not be ethically appropriate to do placebo trials to test new vaccines."
One solution would entail allowing health care workers to exit a trial after a vaccine is approved, even though this would result in "a conundrum when the next group of people are brought forward to get the vaccine—whether they're people age 65 and older or they're essential workers, or whoever they are," says Vanderbilt physician Schaffner, who is a former board member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "All of a sudden, you'll have an erosion of the volunteers who are in the trial."
For now, one way or another, experts agree that current and subsequent trials should proceed. There is a compelling reason to identify additional vaccines with potentially greater effectiveness but with fewer side effects or less complex delivery methods that don't require storage at extremely low temperatures.
"Continuing with existing vaccine trials and starting others remains important," says Nir Eyal, professor and director of Rutgers University's Center for Population-Level Bioethics in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "We still need to tell how much proven vaccines block infections and how long their duration lasts. And populations around the world need vaccines that are easier to store and deliver, or simply cheaper."
But once a safe and effective vaccine is approved in the United States, "it would not be ethically appropriate to do placebo trials to test new vaccines," says bioethicist Bester at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine. "One possibility if a new vaccine emerges, is to test it against existing vaccines."
In a letter sent to trial volunteers in November, Pfizer and BioNTech committed to establishing "a process that would allow interested participants in the placebo group who meet the eligibility criteria for early access in their country to 'cross-over' to the vaccine group." The trial plans to continue monitoring all subjects regardless of whether people in the placebo group cross over, Pfizer said in a presentation to the FDA today. After Pfizer has collected six months of safety data, in April 2021, it plans to ask the FDA for full approval of the vaccine.
In the meantime, the company pledged to update volunteers as they obtain more input from regulatory authorities. "Thank you again for making a difference by being a part of this study," they wrote. "It is only through the efforts of volunteers like you that reaching this important milestone and developing a potential vaccine against COVID-19 is possible."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the FDA would be granting emergency "approval" to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, rather than "emergency use authorization." We regret the error.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.