Op-Ed: A coronavirus vaccine at warp speed? But is it safe?

May 20, 2020 | Press Releases & Announcements, SPH in the News

In an op-ed for the Star-Ledger, CUNY SPH Distinguished Lecturer Scott Ratzan and Senior Scholar Kenneth Rabin along with Emerson College Polling Director Spencer Kimball say that, in order for a coronavirus vaccine to be widely adopted, the public needs clear, reliable communications from trusted public health sources.

A coronavirus vaccine at warp speed? But is it safe?

By Scott Ratzan, Kenneth Rabin and Spencer Kimball

Amidst considerable fanfare, the White House at the end of April launched a multi-billion dollar “Project Warp Speed” to provide America with ample supplies of a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine in the record time of a year or less.

Scott Ratzan

Distinguished Lecturer Scott Ratzan

Additionally, a veritable All-Star team of scientists and government leaders across the political spectrum have agreed that regardless of the speed with which it is developed, a new vaccine will be essential to preventing future outbreaks of COVID-19. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s chief immunologist, has said it would be “a showstopper.”

With these thoughts in mind, over the first weekend of May, we asked a nationwide sample of 1,000 respondents and a second sample of 1,000 New Yorkers, who have spent the last weeks in the eye of the coronavirus storm, to give us their thoughts on the benefits of going boldly where vaccines have never gone before.

We found that wherever Americans live, most of them want to pump the brakes before traveling at warp speed. The majority of Americans will welcome a coronavirus vaccine, but not without the information they can trust. Some are more hesitant and may require individualized counseling. And, perhaps unrealistically in light of the immense burdens that exist, most of our respondents placed the greatest ‘burden of proof’ on their doctors.

Senior Scholar Ken Rabin

Senior Scholar Ken Rabin

In a poll conducted by Emerson College Polling (margin of error +/- 3 percentage points), we asked 1,000 Americans what they felt about “Project Warp Speed,” and just 20% gave it their unequivocal support. An additional 28% said they support the project but believe the timetable cannot be met. About a third (32%) said they needed more information before declaring their support, while a non-trivial minority of 10% said that all vaccines are unsafe, and 5% believed the project was designed to profit the pharmaceutical industry.

We then asked the same respondents whether they would take a coronavirus vaccine if it were available now. Just three in 10 (29%) said they would accept the vaccine immediately. More than half (54%) said they would do so if their doctor recommended it, and a few (4%) said they would do it if their employer or school required it.

Fully one in eight (12.5%) of respondents said they would not take a coronavirus vaccine under any circumstances at this time. As protecting a community against COVID-19 will require a very high level (some experts suggest at least 70%) of population immunity, we probed this sub-group of “deniers” in more depth for cues about communications issues. We found that 92% were concerned about vaccine safety, 75% do not trust pharmaceutical companies, 75% felt the coronavirus vaccine development process had become too political, and 71% wanted more information. More than half (58%) believed they were “at low risk of getting this disease” and a few (11%) opposed vaccination on religious grounds.

Many New Yorkers said they see no “normalcy” without a coronavirus vaccine. When asked whether they would take a coronavirus vaccine if it were available, New York respondents essentially mirrored our national sample. More than three in 10 (31%) said they would take the vaccine immediately, versus 29% of our national sample. Almost half (48%) said they would do so only if their doctor recommended it, versus 54% of the national sample.

Twice as many New Yorkers (8.3%) would take the vaccine if it were required by their school or employer, twice the number nationally (4%). A similar one in eight (12%) of New York City residents said they would not take a coronavirus vaccine and as with the national poll almost all of them (82%) said they would do so because they are worried about the vaccine’s side effects.

What set our New York respondents apart, however, was how often they told us that they would not consider taking part in a specific social encounter until a vaccine was available.

The New York survey listed a number of social encounters and asked each respondent how soon they felt it would be safe to engage in that activity – by June 1, 2020; by the end of October; the end of December; later than that; or only if a coronavirus vaccine were available. In each case, a number of respondents said they would not participate in the absence of a vaccine. Around three New Yorkers in 10 said they would not go to the theater or attend a large outdoor event:

  • 65% of respondents said they would make a routine doctor’s visit June 1st but 7% will wait until a vaccine is available
  • 48% said they would take part in recreational activities like going to the beach or a park June 1st but 18% say they will wait until a vaccine is available
  • 46% said they would go to a hairdresser June 1st but 12% say they will wait until a vaccine is available
  • 31% said they would go to the gym June 1st but 20% say they will wait until a vaccine is available
  • 31% said they would go to a restaurant June 1st but 14% say they will wait until a vaccine is available
  • 23% said yes to going to the theatre on June 1st but 29% say they will wait until a vaccine is available
  • 16% said yes to attending an outdoor activity with over 500 people in attendance June 1st but 31% say they will wait until a vaccine is available

Whether it occurs at warp speed or all reasonable speed, there is no question that the availability of a safe, effective coronavirus vaccine would be a pivotal event in the history of this outbreak. However, if a new vaccine is going to free us to live more like the people we were before the pandemic, our data suggests we will need to provide them with the credible information and assurances they need to decide that the vaccine is right, for them, their families and their communities. We should be addressing this challenge now.

Scott C. Ratzan MD, MPA, is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Health Communication, International Perspectives and a Distinguished Lecturer at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.

Dr. Kenneth Rabin is senior scholar at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.

Spencer Kimball J.D. is director of Emerson College Polling.