It is early December, and the Food and Drug Administration appears poised to approve the first vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine has already been sanctioned in the United Kingdom, and the first dose was administered to 90-year-old Margaret Keenan on Dec. 8, 2020.
To develop and distribute vaccines in under a year for a novel coronavirus that has killed more than a million and a half people worldwide is the “immunological equivalent of the moonshot,” said Dr. Gerald Parker, director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M University and a former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
“It’s simply extraordinary,” he said in a Dec. 2 interview. “It’s unprecedented and a testament to the strong scientific enterprise in the U.S. and around the world.”
Prior to joining Texas A&M, where he is also associate dean for global one health at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Dr. Parker served from 2005-10 in the Bush and Obama administrations as principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services. The office coordinates and leads HHS-wide preparedness and response efforts concerning public health emergencies, such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic that killed over 12,000 people in the United States and an estimated half a million people worldwide.
We probably haven’t done a good enough job as scientists of communicating the complexity associated with vaccine development, because this is truly extraordinary. It has the potential to be one of the greatest public health achievements within our lifetime.
Dr. Gerald Parker, associate dean for global one health, Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences
A majority of the public can’t grasp the significance of genetically sequencing a novel virus and creating vaccines within roughly 11 months, Dr. Parker said.
“We probably haven’t done a good enough job as scientists of communicating the complexity associated with vaccine development, because this is truly extraordinary,” he said. “It has the potential to be one of the greatest public health achievements within our lifetime.”
Regarding global access to the coronavirus, Dr. Parker made an analogy to the Marshall Plan, under which the U.S. provided extensive economic aid to Western Europe following World War II. “We have to make the vaccine available to the entire world, a 21st-century Marshall Plan for the vaccine,” he explained.
Dr. Parker said it’s unfortunate that the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines have become politicized. He said: “Roll the clock back a hundred years, back to before we had vaccines, and everybody knew the impact of infectious diseases. And unfortunately our society has forgotten that. Maybe COVID is a wake-up call.”
While much about the virus and the vaccines’ efficacy are not yet known, Dr. Parker said he and many of his colleagues in the public health community expect that a coronavirus vaccine will require an annual booster to maintain immunity. “Only time will tell, but I won’t be surprised if a coronavirus vaccine becomes part of our annual immunization,” he said.
Once COVID-19 becomes manageable, Dr. Parker expects agencies, advisory committees, and nongovernmental organizations will publish after-action reports analyzing the government response to the pandemic. While that’s all well and good, Dr. Parker hopes to see a more rigorous and far-reaching review forthcoming from Congress, something akin to the 9/11 report produced by an independent and bipartisan commission created by Congress to identify and remedy security failures leading up to the deadly terrorist attack.
“We need to understand why we weren’t prepared as we could have been,” he explained. “It has to be done in an objective manner to be useful, and the review has to go back several years, not starting at January 2020, to prevent another pandemic from happening.”