After COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, life as we knew it altered dramatically and millions went into lockdown. Since then, most of the world has had to contend with masks, distancing, ventilation and cycles of lockdowns as surges flare up. Deaths from COVID-19 infection, along with economic and mental health effects from the shutdowns, have been devastating. The need for an ultimate solution -- safe and effective vaccines -- has been paramount.
On November 9, 2020 (just 8 months after the pandemic announcement), the press release for the first effective COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech was issued, followed by positive announcements regarding the safety and efficacy of five other vaccines from Moderna, University of Oxford/AztraZeneca, Novavax, Johnson and Johnson and Sputnik V. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have earned emergency use authorization through the FDA in the United States and are being distributed. We -- after many long months -- are seeing control of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic glimmering into sight.
To be clear, these vaccine candidates for COVID-19, both authorized and not yet authorized, are highly effective and safe. In fact, across all trials and sites, all six vaccines were 100% effective in preventing hospitalizations and death from COVID-19.
All Vaccines' Phase 3 Clinical Data
Complete protection against hospitalization and death from COVID-19 exhibited by all vaccines with phase 3 clinical trial data.
This astounding level of protection from SARS-CoV-2 from all vaccine candidates across multiple regions is likely due to robust T cell response from vaccination and will "defang" the virus from the concerns that led to COVID-19 restrictions initially: the ability of the virus to cause severe illness. This is a time of hope and optimism. After the devastating third surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths over the winter, we finally have an opportunity to stem the crisis – if only people readily accept the vaccines.
Amidst these incredible scientific advancements, however, public health officials and politicians have been pushing downright discouraging messaging. The ubiquitous talk of ongoing masks and distancing restrictions without any clear end in sight threatens to dampen uptake of the vaccines. It's imperative that we break down each concern and see if we can revitalize our public health messaging accordingly.
The first concern: we currently do not know if the vaccines block asymptomatic infection as well as symptomatic disease, since none of the phase 3 vaccine trials were set up to answer this question. However, there is biological plausibility that the antibodies and T-cell responses blocking symptomatic disease will also block asymptomatic infection in the nasal passages. IgG immunoglobulins (generated and measured by the vaccine trials) enter the nasal mucosa and systemic vaccinations generate IgA antibodies at mucosal surfaces. Monoclonal antibodies given to outpatients with COVID-19 hasten viral clearance from the airways.
Although it is prudent for those who are vaccinated to wear masks around the unvaccinated in case a slight risk of transmission remains, two fully vaccinated people can comfortably abandon masking around each other.
Moreover, data from the AztraZeneca trial (including in the phase 3 trial final results manuscript), where weekly self-swabbing was done by participants, and data from the Moderna trial, where a nasal swab was performed prior to the second dose, both showed risk reductions in asymptomatic infection with even a single dose. Finally, real-world data from a large Pfizer-based vaccine campaign in Israel shows a 50% reduction in infections (asymptomatic or symptomatic) after just the first dose.
Therefore, the likelihood of these vaccines blocking asymptomatic carriage, as well as symptomatic disease, is high. Although it is prudent for those who are vaccinated to wear masks around the unvaccinated in case a slight risk of transmission remains, two fully vaccinated people can comfortably abandon masking around each other. Moreover, as the percentage of vaccinated people increases, it will be increasingly untenable to impose restrictions on this group. Once herd immunity is reached, these restrictions can and should be abandoned altogether.
The second concern translating to "doom and gloom" messaging lately is around the identification of troubling new variants due to enhanced surveillance via viral sequencing. Four major variants circulating at this point (with others described in the past) are the B.1.1.7 variant ("UK variant"), B.1.351 ("South Africa variant), P.1. ("Brazil variant"), and the L452R variant identified in California. Although the UK variant is likely to be more transmissible, as is the South Africa variant, we have no reason to believe that masks, distancing and ventilation are ineffective against these variants.
Moreover, neutralizing antibody titers with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not seem to be significantly reduced against the variants. Finally, although the Novavax 2-dose and Johnson and Johnson (J&J) 1-dose vaccines had lower rates of efficacy against moderate COVID-19 disease in South Africa, their efficacy against severe disease was impressively high. In fact J&J's vaccine still prevented 100% of hospitalizations and death from COVID-19. When combining both hospitalizations/deaths and severe symptoms managed at home, the J&J 1-dose vaccine was 85% protective across all three sites of the trial: the U.S., Latin America (including Brazil), and South Africa.
In South Africa, nearly all cases of COVID-19 (95%) were due to infection with the B.1.351 SARS-CoV-2 variant. Finally, since herd immunity does not rely on maximal immune responses among all individuals in a society, the Moderna/Pfizer/J&J vaccines are all likely to achieve that goal against variants. And thankfully, all of these vaccines can be easily modified to boost specifically against a new variant if needed (indeed, Moderna and Pfizer are already working on boosters against the prominent variants).
The third concern of some public health officials is that people will abandon all restrictions once vaccinated unless overly cautious messages are drilled into them. Indeed, the false idea that if you "give people an inch, they will take a mile" has been misinforming our messaging about mitigation since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, the very phrase "stay at home" with all of its non-applicability for essential workers and single individuals is stigmatizing and unrealistic for many. Instead, the message should have focused on how people can additively reduce their risks under different circumstances.
The public will be more inclined to trust health officials if those officials communicate with nuanced messages backed up by evidence, rather than with broad brushstrokes that shame. Therefore, we should be saying that "vaccinated people can be together with other vaccinated individuals without restrictions but must protect the unvaccinated with masks and distancing." And we can say "unvaccinated individuals should adhere to all current restrictions until vaccinated" without fear of misunderstandings. Indeed, this kind of layered advice has been communicated to people living with HIV and those without HIV for a long time (if you have HIV but partner does not, take these precautions; if both have HIV, you can do this, etc.).
Our heady progress in vaccine development, along with the incredible efficacy results of all of them, is unprecedented. However, we are at risk of undermining such progress if people balk at the vaccine because they don't believe it will make enough of a difference. One of the most critical messages we can deliver right now is that these vaccines will eventually free us from the restrictions of this pandemic. Let's use tiered messaging and clear communication to boost vaccine optimism and uptake, and get us to the goal of close human contact once again.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.