Daisy Hernández was five years old when one of her favorite aunts was struck with a mysterious illness. Tía Dora had stayed behind in Colombia when Daisy's mother immigrated to Union City, New Jersey. A schoolteacher in her late 20s, she began suffering from fevers and abdominal pain, and her belly grew so big that people thought she was pregnant. Exploratory surgery revealed that her large intestine had swollen to ten times its normal size, and she was fitted with a colostomy bag. Doctors couldn't identify the underlying problem—but whatever it was, they said, it would likely kill her within a year or two.
Tía Dora's sisters in New Jersey—Hernández's mother and two other aunts—weren't about to let that happen. They pooled their savings and flew her to New York City, where a doctor at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center with a penchant for obscure ailments provided a diagnosis: Chagas disease. Transmitted by the bite of triatomine insects, commonly known as kissing bugs, Chagas is endemic in many parts of Latin America. It's caused by the parasite Trypanoma cruzi, which usually settles in the heart, where it feeds on muscle tissue. In some cases, however, it attacks the intestines or esophagus. Tía Dora belonged to that minority.
In 1980, U.S. immigration laws were more forgiving than they are today. Tía Dora was able to have surgery to remove a part of her colon, despite not being a citizen or having a green card. She eventually married a legal resident and began teaching Spanish at an elementary school. Over the next three decades, she earned a graduate degree, built a career, and was widowed. Meanwhile, Chagas continued its slow devastation. "Every couple of years, we were back in the hospital with her," Hernández recalls. "When I was in high school, she started feeling like she couldn't swallow anything. It was the parasite, destroying the muscles of her esophagus."
When Tía Dora died in 2010, at 59, her niece was among the family members at her bedside. By then, Hernández had become a journalist and fiction writer. Researching a short story about Chagas disease, she discovered that it affected an estimated 6 million people in South America, Central America, and Mexico—as well as 300,000 in the United States, most of whom were immigrants from those places. "I was shocked to learn it wasn't rare," she says. "That made me hungry to know more about this disease, and about the families grappling with it."
Hernández's curiosity led her to write The Kissing Bug, a lyrical hybrid of memoir and science reporting that was published in June. It also led her to another revelation: Chagas is not unique. It's among the many maladies that global health experts refer to as neglected tropical diseases—often-disabling illnesses that afflict 1.7 billion people worldwide, while getting notably less attention than the "big three" of HIV/AIDs, malaria, and tuberculosis. NTDs cause fewer deaths than those plagues, but they wreak untold suffering and economic loss.
Shortly before Hernández's book hit the shelves, the World Health Organization released its 2021-2030 roadmap for fighting NTDs. The plan sets targets for controlling, eliminating, or eradicating all the diseases on the WHO's list, through measures ranging from developing vaccines to improving healthcare infrastructure, sanitation, and access to clean water. Experts agree that for the campaign to succeed, leadership from wealthy nations—particularly the United States—is essential. But given the inward turn of many such countries in recent years (evidenced in movements ranging from America First to Brexit), and the continuing urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, public support is far from guaranteed.
As Hernández writes: "It is easier to forget a disease that cannot be seen." NTDs primarily affect residents of distant lands. They kill only 80,000 people a year, down from 204,000 in 1990. So why should Americans to bother to look?
Breaking the circle of poverty and disease
The World Health Organization counts 20 diseases as NTDs. Along with Chagas, they include dengue and chikungunya, which cause high fevers and agonizing pain; elephantiasis, which deforms victims' limbs and genitals; onchocerciasis, which causes blindness; schistosomiasis, which can damage the heart, lungs, brain, and genitourinary system; helminths such as roundworm and whipworm, which cause anemia, stunted growth, and cognitive disabilities; and a dozen more. Such ailments often co-occur in the same patient, exacerbating each other's effects and those of illnesses such as malaria.
NTDs may be spread by insects, animals, soil, or tainted water; they may be parasitic, bacterial, viral, or—in the case of snakebite envenoming—non-infectious. What they have in common is their longtime neglect by public health agencies and philanthropies. In part, this reflects their typically low mortality rates. But the biggest factor is undoubtedly their disempowered patient populations.
"These diseases occur in the setting of poverty, and they cause poverty, because of their chronic and debilitating effects," observes Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital for Vaccine Development. And historically, the everyday miseries of impoverished people have seldom been a priority for those who set the global health agenda.
That began to change about 20 years ago, when Hotez and others developed the conceptual framework for NTDs and early proposals for combating them. The WHO released its first roadmap in 2012, targeting 17 NTDs for control, elimination, or eradication by 2020. (Rabies, snakebite, and dengue were added later.) Since then, the number of people at risk for NTDs has fallen by 600 million, and 42 countries have eliminated at least one such disease. Cases of dracunculiasis—known as Guinea worm disease, for the parasite that creates painful blisters in a patient's skin—have dropped from the millions to just 27 in 2020.
Yet the battle is not over, and the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted prevention and treatment programs around the globe.
A new direction — and longstanding obstacles
The WHO's new roadmap sets even more ambitious goals for 2030. Among them: reducing by 90 percent the number of people requiring treatment for NTDs; eliminating at least one NTD in another 100 countries; and fully eradicating dracunculiasis and yaws, a disfiguring skin infection.
The plan also places an increased focus on "country ownership," relying on nations with high incidence of NTDs to design their own plans based on local expertise. "I was so excited to see that," says Kristina Talbert-Slagle, director of the Yale College Global Health Studies program. "No one is a better expert on how to address these situations than the people who deal with it day by day."
Another fresh approach is what the roadmap calls "cross-cutting" targets. "One of the really cool things about the plan is how much it emphasizes coordination among different sectors of the health system," says Claire Standley, a faculty member at Georgetown University's Center for Global Health Science and Security. "For example, it explicitly takes into account the zoonotic nature of many neglected tropical diseases—the fact that we have to think about animal health as well as human health when we tackle NTDs."
Whether this grand vision can be realized, however, will depend largely on funding—and that, in turn, is a question of political will in the countries most able to provide it. On the upside, the U.S. has ended its Trump-era feud with the WHO. "One thing that's been really encouraging," says Standley, "has been the strong commitment toward global cooperation from the current administration." Even under the previous president, the U.S. remained the single largest contributor to the global health kitty, spending over $100 million annually on NTDs—six times the figure in 2006, when such financing started.
On the downside, America's outlay has remained flat for several years, and the Biden administration has so far not moved to increase it. A "back-of-the-envelope calculation," says Hotez, suggests that the current level of aid could buy medications for the most common NTDs for about 200 million people a year. But the number of people who need treatment, he notes, is at least 750 million.
Up to now, the United Kingdom—long the world's second-most generous health aid donor—has taken up a large portion of the slack. But the UK last month announced deep cuts in its portfolio, eliminating 102 previously supported countries and leaving only 34. "That really concerns me," Hotez says.
The struggle for funds, he notes, is always harder for projects involving NTDs than for those aimed at higher-profile diseases. His lab, which he co-directs with microbiologist Maria Elena Bottazzi, started developing a COVID-19 vaccine soon after the pandemic struck, for example, and is now in Phase 3 trials. The team has been working on vaccines for Chagas, hookworm, and schistosomiasis for much longer, but trials for those potential game-changers lag behind. "We struggle to get the level of resources needed to move quickly," Hotez explains.
Two million reasons to care
One way to prompt a government to open its pocketbook is for voters to clamor for action. A longtime challenge with NTDs, however, has been getting people outside the hardest-hit countries to pay attention.
The reasons to care, global health experts argue, go beyond compassion. "When we have high NTD burden," says Talbert-Slagle, "it can prevent economic growth, prevent innovation, lead to more political instability." That, in turn, can lead to wars and mass migration, affecting economic and political events far beyond an affected country's borders.
Like Hernández's aunt Dora, many people driven out of NTD-wracked regions wind up living elsewhere. And that points to another reason to care about these diseases: Some of your neighbors might have them. In the U.S., up to 14 million people suffer from neglected parasitic infections—including 70,000 with Chagas in California alone.
When Hernández was researching The Kissing Bug, she worried that such statistics would provide ammunition to racists and xenophobes who claim that immigrants "bring disease" or exploit overburdened healthcare systems. (This may help explain some of the stigma around NTDs, which led Tía Dora to hide her condition from most people outside her family.) But as the book makes clear, these infections know no borders; they flourish wherever large numbers of people lack access to resources that most residents of rich countries take for granted.
Indeed, far from gaming U.S. healthcare systems, millions of low-income immigrants can't access them—or must wait until they're sick enough to go to an emergency room. Since Congress changed the rules in 1996, green card holders have to wait five years before they can enroll in Medicaid. Undocumented immigrants can never qualify.
Closing the great divide
Hernández uses a phrase borrowed from global health crusader Paul Farmer to describe this access gap: "the great epi divide." On one side, she explains, "people will die from cancer, from diabetes, from chronic illnesses later in life. On the other side of the epidemiological divide, people are dying because they can't get to the doctor, or they can't get medication. They don't have a hospital anywhere near them. When I read Dr. Farmer's work, I realized how much that applied to neglected diseases as well."
When it comes to Chagas disease, she says, the epi divide is embodied in the lack of a federal mandate for prenatal or newborn screening. Each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 300 babies in the U.S. are born with Chagas, which can be passed from the mother in utero. The disease can be cured with medication if treated in infancy. (It can also be cured in adults in the acute stage, but is seldom detected in time.) Yet the CDC does not require screening for Chagas—even though newborns are tested for 15 diseases that are less common. According to one study, it would be 10 times cheaper to screen and treat babies and their mothers than to cover the costs related to the illness in later years. Few states make the effort.
The gap that enables NTDs to persist, Hernández argues, is the same one that has led to COVID-19 death rates in Black and Latinx communities that are double those elsewhere in America. To close it, she suggests, caring is not enough.
"When I was working on my book," she says, "I thought about HIV in the '80s, when it had so much stigma that no one wanted to talk about it. Then activists stepped up and changed the conversation. I thought a lot about breast cancer, which was stigmatized for years, until people stepped forward and started speaking out. I thought about Lyme disease. And it wasn't only patients—it was also allies, right? The same thing needs to happen with neglected diseases around the world. Allies need to step up and make demands on policymakers. We need to make some noise."
One of the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is the way in which it has forced us to question our hopes. In normal times, hope is a tonic we take in small doses to keep us moving forward through the slog of daily life. The pandemic, however, has made it a much scarcer commodity, spurring us not only to seek it more desperately but to scrutinize it more closely.
Every bit of reassurance seems to come with caveats: Masks can shield us from the coronavirus, but they may need to be doubled in some situations to provide adequate protection. Vaccines work, but they may not be as effective against some viral variants—and they can cause extremely rare but serious side effects. Every few weeks, another potential miracle cure makes headlines (Hydroxychloroquine! Convalescent plasma!), only to prove disappointing on closer inspection. It's hard to know which alleged breakthroughs are worth pinning our hopes on, and which are the products of wishful thinking or hucksterism.
In January 2021, a study published in the journal Gut offered evidence that bacteria in the intestines might influence a whole spectrum of symptoms in long-haul patients.
Lately, two possible sources of hope have emerged concerning so-called "long COVID"—the debilitating syndrome, estimated to affect up to one-third of patients, in which physical, neurological, and cognitive symptoms persist for months. The first encouraging item has gotten plenty of media attention: reports that some long-haulers feel better after being vaccinated. The second item, while less widely covered, has caused a stir among scientists: a study suggesting that rebalancing the gut microbiome—the community of microorganisms in our intestines—could decrease both the severity and duration of the illness.
How optimistic should we allow ourselves to be about either of these developments? Experts warn that it's too soon to tell. Yet research into how vaccines and gut bacteria affect long-haulers—and how both factors might work together—could eventually help solve key pieces of the pandemic puzzle.
Investigating the Role of the Gut Microbiome
The idea that there may be a link between COVID-19 and gut health comes as no surprise to Jessica Lovett. Her case began in June 2020 with gastrointestinal distress—a symptom that was just beginning to be recognized as commonplace in what had initially been considered a respiratory illness. "I had diarrhea three to five times a day for two months," Lovett recalls. "I lost a lot of weight." By July, she was also suffering shortness of breath, chest pain, racing heartbeat, severe fatigue, brain fog, migraines, memory lapses, and more. As with many other COVID long-haulers, these troubles waxed and waned in an endless parade.
Lovett was the marketing manager for a music school in Austin, Texas, and the mother of a two-year-old boy. Just before she got sick, she ran a 5K race for her 40th birthday. Afterward, she had to give up her job, stop driving, and delegate childcare to her husband (who fell ill shortly before she did but recovered in 12 days). Tests showed no visible damage to her lungs, heart, or other organs. But she felt intuitively that taming her GI troubles would be key to getting well. On the advice of fellow patients in a long-COVID Facebook group—and, later, with the guidance of a doctor—she tried avoiding foods thought to trigger histamine reactions or inflammation. That seemed to help some, as did nutritional supplements, antihistamines, and angina medications. Still, she relapsed frequently, and was often bedridden.
In January 2021, a study published in the journal Gut offered evidence that bacteria in the intestines might influence a whole spectrum of symptoms in patients like Lovett. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong examined blood and stool samples and medical records from 100 hospital patients with lab-confirmed COVID-19 infections, and from 78 people without the disease who were taking part in a microbiome study before the pandemic.
The team, led by professor Siew Chien Ng, found that the makeup of the gut microbiome differed sharply between the two groups. Patients with COVID had higher levels of three bacterial species than those without the infection, but lower levels of several species known to enhance immune system response. Reductions in two of those species—Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and Bifidobacterium bifidum—were associated with more severe symptoms. And the numbers of such helpful bacteria remained low in stool samples collected up to 30 days after infected patients had seemingly cleared the coronavirus from their bodies.
Analysis of blood samples, moreover, showed that these bacterial imbalances correlated with higher levels of inflammatory cytokines (immune system chemicals that are elevated in many patients with severe COVID-19) and markers of tissue damage, such as C-reactive protein.
These findings led the researchers to suggest that rebalancing the microbiome might lessen not only the intensity of COVID symptoms, but also their persistence. "Bolstering of beneficial gut species depleted in COVID-19," they wrote, "could serve as a novel avenue to mitigate severe disease, underscoring the importance of managing patients' gut biota during and after COVID-19."
Soon afterward, Ng revealed that she was working on a solution. Her team, she told Medscape, had developed "a microbiome immunity product that is targeted to what is missing in COVID-19 patients." Early research showed that hospitalized patients who received the treatment developed more antibodies, had fewer symptoms, and were discharged sooner. "So it is quite a bright and promising future," she enthused, "in alleviating some of these detrimental effects of the virus."
The Chicken-and-Egg Problem
Ng's study isn't the only one to suggest a connection between the gut and long COVID. Researchers led by gastroenterologist Saurabh Mehandru at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital recently determined that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can linger in the intestines for months after a patient tests negative. Some studies have also found that gastrointestinal symptoms in the acute phase of the illness correlate with poorer outcomes—though that's far from settled. (In another study, Mehandru's team found lower mortality among patients presenting with GI symptoms.) But the Hong Kong group's paper was the first to posit that resident microbes may play a decisive role in the disease.
That view reflects growing evidence that these bugs can influence a range of ailments, from diabetes to schizophrenia. Over the past decade, the gut microbiome has emerged as a central regulator of the immune system. Some intestinal bacteria emit chemicals that signal immune cells to reduce production of inflammatory proteins, or help those cells effectively target invading pathogens. They also help maintain the integrity of the intestinal lining—preventing the syndrome known as "leaky gut," in which harmful microbes or toxins penetrate to the underlying tissue, potentially wreaking havoc throughout the body and brain.
Nonetheless, many experts have responded to Ng's findings with distinct caution. One problem, they point out, is the chicken-and-egg question: Do reduced levels of beneficial gut bacteria trigger the inflammation seen in COVID-19, or does inflammation triggered by COVID-19 kill off beneficial gut bacteria? "It's an issue of causality versus just association," explains Somsouk Ma, a professor of gastroenterology at the University of California, San Francisco. "I tend to think that the shift in microbes is more likely a consequence of the infection. But, of course, that's just speculation."
A related issue is whether a pill that replenishes "good" bacteria can really combat the effects of COVID-19—whether acute or chronic. Although scientists are studying fecal transplants and other probiotic therapies for many disorders, none has yet been approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. "The only situation where bacterial transplantation is known to work is in a form of colitis called Clostridium difficile," notes Mehandru. "I think it's a bit premature to lay too much emphasis on this in the context of COVID."
Placebo-controlled clinical trials will be needed to determine the efficacy of Ng's approach. (Consumer warning: The bacteria she's employing are not found in commercially available probiotics.) Whatever the results, such research—along with studies that track patients' gut microbiomes before, during, and after COVID-19 infection—could help scientists understand why some people have such trouble kicking the disease.
An Unexpected Benefit of Vaccines
The question of what causes long COVID is also central to understanding the effects of vaccines on the condition. In March, as inoculation campaigns took off across the nation, many long-haulers were delighted to see their symptoms disappear within days of getting the shot. "I woke up and it was like, 'Oh what a beautiful morning,'" one patient told The New York Times.
Yet the effects have been far from uniform. Although scientific surveys have not yet been conducted, an April poll by a Facebook group called Survivor Corps found numbers close to experts' estimates: 39 percent said they experienced partial to full recovery post-vaccination; 46 percent saw no difference; and 14 percent felt worse.
How could vaccines—which are designed to prevent COVID-19, not cure it—help some chronic patients get well? In a blog post, Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki suggested that the answer depends on what is driving a particular patient's symptoms. Iwasaki identified three possible mechanisms behind long COVID: 1) a persistent viral reservoir; 2) a "viral ghost," composed of fragments of the virus (RNA or proteins) that linger after the infection has been cleared but can still stimulate inflammation; and 3) an autoimmune response triggered by the infection, inducing a patient's immune cells to attack her own tissues.
These mechanisms "are not mutually exclusive," Iwasaki wrote, "and all three might benefit from the vaccines." If a patient has a viral reservoir, vaccine-induced immune cells and antibodies might be able to eliminate it. If the patient has a viral ghost, those vaccine-primed immune responses might knock it out as well. And if the patient is suffering from a COVID-triggered autoimmune syndrome, the vaccine might act as a decoy, shifting the immune system's attention to antigens contained in the shot (and perhaps reprogramming autoimmune cells in the process). The varying role of these underlying factors, and possibly others—such as the gut microbiome—might also help explain why vaccines don't benefit all long-haulers equally. Iwasaki and her team recently launched a clinical study to investigate this theory.
Pato Hebert, a professor of art and public policy at NYU, contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 while on sabbatical in Los Angeles. Hebert, then 50, started out with mild flu-like symptoms, but he was slammed with fatigue, headaches, and confusion a week after testing positive. In April, he landed in urgent care with severe shortness of breath. His brain fog worsened that summer, and a gentle swim brought on a dizzy spell so overwhelming that he feared it was a stroke. (Thankfully, tests showed it wasn't.) In September, he developed severe GI issues, which came and went over the following months. He found some relief through medications, dietary adjustments, acupuncture, herbal remedies, and careful conservation of his physical and mental energy—but a year after his diagnosis, he was still sick.
Hebert received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine on March 1, 2021; it made no difference in his symptoms. After his second dose, on the 29th, he suffered terrible headaches—"like early COVID days," he told me. A week later, his condition had improved slightly compared to pre-vaccination. "With a few exceptions, my fatigue and brain fog have been less challenging," he reported. "I'm cautiously optimistic." But in late April, he suffered another flareup of respiratory and GI issues.
For Jessica Lovett, the vaccine's effects were more dramatic. After her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech formula, on February 26, her cognitive symptoms improved enough that she was able to drive again; within a week, she was pushing her son uphill in a stroller, lifting light weights, and running for short distances. After the second dose, she says, "I had incredible energy. It was insane, like I drank three cups of coffee."
Lovett (who now runs a Facebook support group for Austin locals, ATX Covid Long Haulers) stresses that the vaccine hasn't cured her. She winds up back in bed whenever she pushes herself too hard. She still needs to take antihistamines and shun certain foodstuffs; any slip-up brings another relapse. Yet she's able to live more fully than at any time since she fell ill—and she has begun to feel a renewed sense of hope.
Recently, in fact, she and her husband decided to expand their family. "I guess that tells you something," she says with a laugh. "The doctors have given us the okay, and we're going to try."
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."