COVID-19 vaccine development has advanced at a record-setting pace, thanks to our nation's longstanding support for basic vaccine science coupled with massive public and private sector investments.
Yet, policymakers aren't according anywhere near the same level of priority to investments in the social, behavioral, and data science needed to better understand who and what influences vaccination decision-making. "If we want to be sure vaccines become vaccinations, this is exactly the kind of work that's urgently needed," says Dr. Bruce Gellin, President of Global Immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute.
Simply put: it's possible vaccines will remain in refrigerators and not be delivered to the arms of rolled-up sleeves if we don't quickly ramp up vaccine confidence research and broadly disseminate the findings.
According to the most recent Gallup poll, the share of U.S. adults who say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine rose to 58 percent this month from 50 percent in September, with non-white Americans and those ages 45-65 even less willing to be vaccinated. While there is still much we don't understand about COVID-19, we do know that without high levels of immunity in the population, a return to some semblance of normalcy is wishful thinking.
Research from prior vaccination campaigns such as H1N1, HPV, and the annual flu points us in the right direction. Key components of successful vaccination efforts require 1) Identifying the concerns of particular segments of the population; 2) Tailoring messages and incentives to address those concerns, and 3) Reaching out through trusted sources – health care providers, public health departments, and others in the community.
Research during the H1N1 flu found preparing people for some uncertainty actually improved trust, according to Dr. Sandra Crouse Quinn, professor and chair, Family Science, University of Maryland. Dr. Crouse Quinn's research during that period also underscored the need to address the specific vaccine concerns of racial and ethnic groups.
The stunning scientific achievement of COVID-19 vaccines anticipated to be ready in record time needs to be backed up by an equally ambitious and evidence-based effort to build the public's confidence in the vaccines.
Data science has provided crucial insight about the social media universe. Dr. Neil Johnson, a scientist at George Washington University, found that despite having fewer followers, anti-vaccination pages are more numerous and growing faster than pro-vaccination pages. They are more often linked to in discussions on other Facebook pages – such as school parent associations – where people are undecided about vaccination.
We've learned about building vaccine confidence from earlier campaigns. Now, however, we are faced with a unique and challenging set of obstacles to unpack quickly: How do we communicate the importance of eventual COVID-19 vaccines to Americans in light of the muddled-to-poor messaging from political leaders, the weaponizing of relatively simple public health recommendations, the enormous disproportionate toll on people of color, and the torrent of online misinformation? We urgently need data reflective of today's circumstances along with the policy to ensure it is quickly and effectively disseminated to the public health and clinical workforce.
Last year prompted in part by the measles outbreaks, Reps. Michael C. Burgess (R-TX) and Kim Shrier (D-WA), both physicians, introduced the bipartisan Vaccines Act to develop a national surveillance system to monitor vaccination rates and conduct a national campaign to increase awareness of the importance of vaccines. Unfortunately, that legislation wasn't passed. In response to COVID-19, Senate HELP Committee Ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) has sought funds to strengthen vaccine confidence and combat misinformation with federally supported communication, research, and outreach efforts. Leading experts outside of Congress have called for this type of research, including the Sabin-Aspen Vaccine Science Policy Institute. Most recently, the National Academy of Sciences, in its report regarding the equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, included as one of its recommendations the need for "a rapid-response program to advance the science behind vaccine confidence."
Addressing trust in vaccination has never been as challenging nor as consequential. The stunning scientific achievement of COVID-19 vaccines anticipated to be ready in record time needs to be backed up by an equally ambitious and evidence-based effort to build the public's confidence in the vaccines. In its remaining days, the Trump Administration should invest in building vaccine confidence with current resources, targeting efforts to ensure COVID vaccines reduce rather than exacerbate racial and ethnic health disparities. Congress must also act to provide the additional research and outreach resources needed as well as pass the Vaccines Act so we are better prepared in the future.
If we don't succeed, COVID-19 will continue wreaking havoc on our health, our society, and our economy. We will also permanently jeopardize public trust in vaccines – one of the most successful medical interventions in human history.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby