The halting of AstraZeneca's vaccine trial is not only a reminder of the challenge of finding a cure, but will feed growing public mistrust of states and scientists.
PARIS — It was a prickly reality check. We learned yesterday that the clinical trial conducted by AstraZeneca to find a vaccine against COVID-19 was put on hold. The incident, altogether quite common in the scientific world, has cast a chill across an entire world hoping for a quick miracle cure to contain the virus.
The race for a vaccine is bound to follow a tortuous path. The scale of the resources committed around the world might offer hope — the European Union, for example, has just initiated a sixth pre-order for vaccines. But for now, nothing is settled either on the effectiveness of the treatments or on the required deadlines. We will therefore have to go on for months without a cure. And to take decisions regarding our health as if there was no imminent vaccine.
During this time of global uncertainty, there is a great risk of seeing a new increase in scientific controversies, after those regarding the efficiency of masks or hydroxychloroquine. These controversies will be fueled by the states themselves.
Mistrust is widespread, as the low rate of flu vaccinations demonstrates.
Vladimir Putin set the tone by turning the Russian vaccine project into a political weapon. Beijing is posed to ambush and Donald Trump is closely following the Russian president, putting strong pressure on U.S. health authorities so that a treatment is approved before November's presidential election. All of that with the risk of promoting vaccines with limited efficiency. A rare occurrence: in a joint statement, the heads of nine pharmaceutical groups have just raised the alarm regarding any hasty approval of a new vaccine.
All this will not help to reverse the already declining trust of the population in vaccines. The evolution of opinion is worrying across the Atlantic, but also in France. The latest polls show that the French would rank among the world's populations most reluctant to be vaccinated against COVID-19 if such treatment were available. It's a shame in a country that has historically been at the forefront on scientific research.
""Say no to mandatory vaccines'" in the UK — Photo: Joel Goodman/London News Pictures/ZUMA
Convincing the entire population to be vaccinated will not be the first priority though. Due to limited time and availability, it will be necessary to start by vaccinating people who are deemed ‘at risk": health workers, the elderly and/or people suffering from certain pathologies, and so on. But even among these groups, mistrust is widespread, as the low rate of flu vaccinations among nursing staff in hospitals and nursing homes shows.
Indeed, the flu vaccination campaign that is starting will thus serve as a test, as France has ordered a larger number of doses, with the aim of limiting those who catch the flu to avoid additional pressure on its health system. Any initiatives facilitating these campaigns — such as vaccination by pharmacists, which is yielding results — will be welcome. Just like respecting social distancing, vaccination is not just an act of individual protection, but one with even greater collective benefits.