Don’t let focus on vaccine research fade after COVID-19 pandemic ends, experts urge


The world we’ll live in — post-pandemic.

What will change when the COVID-19 pandemic ends? Will our world return to its old ways, or emerge retooled, revised, or perhaps even changed for the better?

In this second instalment of a series looking at life after the coronavirus pandemic, CBC Manitoba looks at the historic treatment of vaccines, vaccine research and the science behind it — and whether lessons learned from COVID-19 will be heeded into the future.

A team of researchers has been given the green light — and money — to help science our way out of another pandemic.

That’s the good news.

But history has revealed that the world has a short memory, and once the worst of the bad is over, interest in a preventative vaccine tends to die down, scientists say.

That’s the bad news. 

Only time will tell whether lessons learned from this COVID-19 pandemic will sink in a little longer, but at least one researcher isn’t optimistic.

“Maybe in the short term? I’m not sure about the long term,” said research scientist Darryl Falzarano, laughing as he answered. 

“Sorry. I guess you caught me on a pessimistic day.”

‘There’ll still be anti-vaxxers’

Falzarano knows his coronaviruses. It’s his job. 

The former Manitoban (a graduate from both the University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba) is now with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre, or VIDO-InterVac, at the University of Saskatchewan. 

For years, he and his colleagues have done animal research on the potential for vaccines against coronaviruses that came along prior to COVID-19, like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

For years, they’ve envisioned completing the next phase of this — a vaccine-manufacturing facility to support further vaccine research and, eventually, clinical trials on humans.

Then came COVID-19. And now comes the money for VIDO-InterVac.

In March, the federal government committed $23 million to the academic research lab. Some of it — $11 million — was money already in the works prior to the outbreak, Falzarano says.

The other $12 million is in direct response to the pandemic, and will go toward completing the vaccine-manufacturing facility, he says.

And that, in return, will get them one step closer to beginning small, first-phase clinical vaccine trials on humans.

“It’s been a work in progress for years,” Falzarano said. “This will allow us to move things quicker.”

Still, Falzarano knows there are some who’d just as soon they take their time.

“I’m sure there’ll still be anti-vaxxers,” he said, laughing again.

He’s right. Already, some in the anti-vaccination movement are pushing back against COVID-19.

Some even allege the illness is a viral version of smoke and mirrors, created in a lab by those who want to score more money by creating a vaccine that pharmaceutical companies will pay for, but that no one really needs.

Health policy professor Bruce Y. Lee says history has long predicted the world is not prepared for pandemics like COVID-19. ‘None of what’s happening is a surprise,’ he says. (Submitted by Bruce Y. Lee)

“A lot of anti-vaxx efforts have an agenda behind them,” said Bruce Y. Lee, a Forbes Magazine health reporter and professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York.

“And those agendas don’t stop during a pandemic.”

This is despite the fact that COVID-19 should be the pandemic eye-opener that’s long been predicted, Lee says. 

If the world heals itself without COVID vaccination, then vaccine skepticism will likely increase.- Gregory Mason

In a 2017 article he wrote for Forbes, Yee noted that Microsoft founder Bill Gates, citing leading scientists, cautioned of a pending pandemic that the world was not prepared for. 

In 2009, Lee himself, with other leading scientists, had come to a similar conclusion while researching global responses to the H1N1 pandemic. 

“None of what’s happening [with COVID-19] is a surprise,” said Lee. “And the fact that there’s still pushback is not surprising either.”

Which is why, Lee says, while he’s happy to hear about Canada’s new financial commitment to Falzarano and his colleagues, he’s guarded in his enthusiasm.

“I think we need to be cautious about this. We’ve seen this repeat situation in an emergency, but then funding dried up.”

Lessons from the past

University of Manitoba health economist Gregory Mason doesn’t like the odds. 

Mason uses risk analysis to understand the motivations of people who are anti-vaccination (or the “vaccine hesitancy” movement, “as I politely call them,” he says).

The basic concept of risk analysis is simple — assess the probable impact of an action taken (or not), and act accordingly the next time around.

“Part of me wants to believe that COVID-19 is scaring the pants off everyone,” he said.

“But [even] some family members are anti-vaxxers and I see their attitude to the present virus. I am less hopeful.”

‘If we see no repeat cycle … this will all pass as a bad dream, and life will resume quickly’ after the coronavirus pandemic, says the University of Manitoba’s Gregory Mason. (Warren Kay/CBC)

History could be a lesson to us. And it’s tried, Mason says — but those lessons have been lost on us.

Think back to SARS.

In 2003, scientists came close to developing a SARS vaccine to test on humans. 

It never made it to trial. As memories of the virus faded, so did public pressure, Mason says, “because that pandemic just seemed to die out.”

Or think ebola.

In 1999, scientists at Canada’s then-new National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg began probing the deadly virus, and soon they realized they could develop a vaccine.

But it took close to two decades before interest — and funds — led to a vaccine. 

And that only happened after a 2014 outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people.

We can’t sit here and say ‘this is a once in a generation event.’- Bruce Y. Lee

And even when a vaccine is created, there’s backlash. If a virus is out of sight, it’s out of mind. 

Take the 2017 measles outbreak.

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported a 31 per cent rise in worldwide measles cases that year, estimating 110,000 deaths due to the disease.

The reason? A decrease in voluntary vaccinations.

The reason for the decrease? The perception that no one gets the measles anymore.

That’s why, Mason says, he’s doubtful about lessons learned from COVID-19.

It might be a better teacher, but its students might soon forget the lesson; especially if the anticipated “second wave” of the virus wanes, he says.

“If we see no repeat cycle in the late fall, this will all pass as a bad dream, and life will resume quickly,” Mason said. “In fact, if the world heals itself without COVID vaccination, then vaccine skepticism will likely increase.”

What’s more, others say, history may not be done with us.

“We can’t sit here and say ‘this is a once in a generation event,'” Lee says. “The question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ another pandemic occurs.”

And he poses an even more worrying question.

“Is this pandemic a warning for an even bigger one?”

However, VIDO-InterVac’s Falzarano, and his colleagues across the country, are determined to be part of the global effort to prevent that.

“I would hope that [this pandemic] leads people to see that vaccinations are important,” he said.

“If we’d had a vaccine ready to go … you could see how impactful that would be.”

Read more from this series:

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