NIH director: COVID-19 vaccines safe, effective and ethical

The unprecedented pace of developing vaccines for COVID-19 has not jeopardized their effectiveness or safety for Americans, the director of the National Institutes of Health said in a December webinar hosted by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Francis Collins, NIH’s director since 2009, answered questions from ERLC President Russell Moore about vaccines for the deadly disease, while two candidates awaited potential approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use.

“I want to assure you as a scientist, as a physician, as a researcher who has been in the middle of all of this since January, we have done nothing to compromise in even the smallest way the safety or the efficacy standards for these vaccines,” said Collins, a noted physician-geneticist.

“What we’ve done is to figure out how to get rid of some of the dead time. It normally takes eight years to develop a vaccine,” he said, instead of the 10 months the current candidates have required. “But the rigor involved, if anything, has been escalated to an even higher level than has been applied to vaccines before.”

Pfizer and Moderna have submitted applications to the FDA following trials that included 43,000 volunteers for the former company and 30,000 for the latter. In the past, 4,000 or 5,000 participants have been involved in vaccine trials, Collins said.

“So if the FDA in their conclusions in just a couple of weeks say these are safe and effective, that’s because the data say they are safe and effective,” he told webinar participants.

Collins and other public health officials are seeking to help persuade a large portion of the American public that is skeptical about a vaccine. A November Gallup poll showed 58 percent of adults said they would get the vaccine if it were currently available at no cost.

Collins said of the Pfizer and Moderna trials: “[W]e were delighted, thrilled, amazed to see that it looked like the effectiveness [of both] was about 95 percent. That is so much better than what you could expect to see with a new illness of this sort.

“And the safety looks really good as well.”

So far, the evidence shows the “side effects seem to be pretty similar to what you get with other vaccines, and there don’t seem to be any unexpected longer-term issues,” Collins said. The trials have lasted for at least two months, a time period in which any problem is normally recognized, he said.

A follower of Christ, Collins said, “Here’s a great opportunity for Christians to say, ‘Let’s really look at the truth of the situation and evaluate what the evidence demonstrates for and against the idea that this is something I want to take advantage of myself.’”

For now, the risk “looks minimal,” and there is “a pretty good balance of benefits and risks that you’d want to engage in and probably take advantage of yourself and roll up your sleeve,” he said.

Collins explained that each vaccine requires two doses, or injections, about a month apart. The first recipients of the vaccine will be higher-risk Americans, such as health-care workers and the elderly in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, he said.

In response to a question from Moore, Collins explained a cell line derived from an elective abortion in 1972 is used often in biotechnology but is not used in the production of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The cell line is part of the preparation of the vaccine candidates produced by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca that are now in Phase 3 trials.

That cell line “is sometimes used just as a lab bench experiment to make sure that everything is working the way it’s supposed to,” he said.

Rejecting a vaccine and waiting on herd immunity is not an appropriate option, Collins told Moore.

“If we were to adopt that strategy, we potentially would eventually get to herd immunity, but there would be millions of us no longer around,” he said. “That is too high a price for us to bear if we don’t have to. That’s not a Christian answer if we love our neighbor.”

While Americans await a vaccine, Collins said, “We need to be just absolutely, rigorously adherent to things that we know work, but they don’t work unless everybody actually sticks to them faithfully without exception.”

A mask is not “a political statement” but “a life-saving medical device. Think about it that way,” he said. People should remember wearing a mask is primarily to protect others, not themselves, Collins said. “That sounds like a Christian action if I’ve ever heard one.”

Most churches should have virtual services, not in-person ones, Collins recommended. After corporate worship, “you just can’t get a bunch of Christians not to hug each other and not to want to shake hands with the pastor as they go out the door, and maybe have a conversation that’s a whole lot closer than six feet away — and that’s where the trouble happens,” he said.

Based on the current pace, Collins predicted every American should have the opportunity to receive the vaccine by early summer, and the economy can get back on its feet.

“But there are a lot of steps between now and then. And, of course, it will go better if we don’t have our healthcare system utterly devastated by the ongoing pandemic that we could have potentially turned around by all of us (following health guidelines).”

Collins served as director of NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute for 15 years before becoming NIH director in 2009. NIH is the world’s largest supporter of biomedical research.

— Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.