Person receiving vaccine.

What You Should Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine

Cross-posted from Harvard Law Today, where it originally appeared on December 3, 2020. 

By Jeff Neal

The race to approve and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19 got a huge shot in the arm this week.

On Tuesday, the United Kingdom approved a vaccine developed by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. On the same day in the United States, a panel of experts advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a first-stage plan for distributing the vaccine to some of the most at-risk Americans. Separately, another advisory committee is set to meet twice in the coming weeks to evaluate for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the safety and efficacy of both the Pfizer vaccine and a similar one produced by Moderna.

To better understand the impact of these developments, Harvard Law Today recently spoke with public health expert Carmel Shachar J.D./M.P.H. ’10, the executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, about the vaccine, who is likely to get it first, and whether employers and states can require people to get vaccinated.

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Spoonful of sugar.

From “A Spoonful of Sugar” to Operation Warp Speed: COVID-19 Vaccines and Their Metaphors

By Ross D. Silverman, Katharine J. Head, and Emily Beckman

As professors studying public health policy, narrative medicine, and how providers and the public communicate about vaccines, we recognize the power and peril of using the rhetorical tool of metaphors in vaccination and, more broadly, the COVID-19 response efforts.

Metaphors can be an effective shorthand to help people understand complex ideas, but we also must remain cognizant of the many ways metaphors may distort, divide, or misrepresent important details.

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Close up of a Doctor making a vaccination in the shoulder of patient.

Authorize Emergency Vaccines for COVID-19, but Do It Well

By Holly Fernandez Lynch, Alison Bateman-House, and Arthur Caplan

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to grant emergency use authorization (EUA) for one or more COVID-19 vaccines before the end of the year — perhaps even before the end of the day, given today’s advisory committee meeting.

The agency’s decision on these EUAs will balance the need for additional data on safety and efficacy against the potential to protect at-risk groups as quickly as possible. EUAs tip the balance in favor of speed, which can be reasonable for these populations given the circumstances, especially in light of the strong trial data reported for three COVID-19 vaccines since mid-November. But the tradeoff is very real: vaccine EUAs will substantially lower the likelihood of ongoing trials completing and new trials successfully recruiting volunteers. There are a few ways to minimize these consequences.

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Syringe and money.

Why the Government Shouldn’t Pay People to Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19

By Ana Santos Rutschman

As several pharmaceutical companies approach the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seeking authorization to bring COVID-19 vaccines to market, concerns about vaccine mistrust cloud the prospects of imminent vaccination efforts across the globe. These concerns have prompted some commentators to suggest that governments may nudge vaccine uptake by paying people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

This post argues that, even if potentially viable, this idea is undesirable against the backdrop of a pandemic marked by the intertwined phenomena of health misinformation and mistrust in public health authorities. Even beyond the context of COVID-19, paying for vaccination is dubious public health policy likely to backfire in terms of (re)building public trust in vaccines.

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Restaurant closed sign - "we cannot wait to see you again. stay safe."

Under an EUA, Can Businesses Require Employees and Customers to Get Vaccinated?

By Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

As promising data emerges for COVID-19 vaccines in clinical trials, two manufacturers of these vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, have submitted requests for Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA).

An EUA would allow vaccines to be used before full FDA approval, during the time that COVID-19 is an emergency.

The promise of a safe, effective vaccine offers a glimmer of hope not just for individuals around the world affected by the pandemic, but also for businesses large and small that have struggled with closures and public health-related changes to operations. A natural question that has emerged as private businesses contemplate a return to normalcy is whether they can mandate that employees and customers receive these vaccines authorized for emergency use.

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Syringe being filled from a vial. Vaccine concept illustration.

What Does the Good News on the Vaccine Front Mean?

By Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

In the past weeks, three companies in advanced stages of COVID-19 vaccine trials reported good news. Moderna and Pfizer reported, respectively, 94.5% and 95% effectiveness of their mRNA vaccines in preventing symptomatic disease and similarly high effectiveness in preventing severe disease.

This was shortly followed by news that the AstraZeneca vaccine had over 70% effectiveness, and 90% with a different dosage regime.

The companies have also reported a favorable safety profile, with no serious harms attributed to the vaccine, though the vaccines do cause a high rate of temporary and unpleasant side effects, including local reactions and temporary flu-like symptoms.

Pfizer has already applied for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA, and I would expect Moderna and AstraZeneca to follow suit.

What does this mean? First, a note of caution. These are reports from the companies; the FDA has not yet finished examining the data. Examination may raise questions. The data submitted has to pass dual review.

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