Harvard expert: Concerns about COVID-19 vaccine development show safety systems work

A Harvard researcher believes the public deserves to see the kind of scrutiny that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is getting, and that the transparency of those efforts should mean that the trials won’t compromise the credibility of vaccines.

U.S. officials are again evaluating the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine amid concerns that “outdated information” might have been included in promising results from a U.S. trial.

“We have to be transparent about it,” said Gillian SteelFisher, deputy director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program. “We have to actually put it out there.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine rollout in Europe has been challenged by reports of blood clots in a few dozen of the millions of people across Europe who had gotten the shot, and by a manufacturing mistake that researchers initially didn’t acknowledge.

The question came up as to whether those setbacks were undermining confidence in the vaccine, but SteelFisher rejected the notion, saying people should have more confidence in the process for exactly this reason.

“It doesn’t have to be undermining. I think what’s undermining is when things are said without context, they’re said repeatedly, and there’s not an understanding of the broader system in which this came to light: because we have a really robust safety check system, because we’re really making sure that it’s safe.”

“Sometimes we miss the mark on the messaging,” SteelFisher added. “If this is a false alarm, we should be glad that we have an alarm system. We’re actually doing due diligence. We’re actually making sure, that from a public heath [perspective], these vaccines don’t just go out. … We sometimes don’t say it that way. This is an expected part of the system, and we haven’t prepared people for the fact that this is the system; this is what’s going to happen.”

SteelFisher’s comments came on Tuesday, during an event by the Forum at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and The World from PRX & GBH.

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Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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