As phase III trials of covid-19 vaccines reach their target enrolments, officials have been trying to project calm. The US coronavirus czar Anthony Fauci and the Food and Drug Administration leadership have offered public assurances that established procedures will be followed. Only a “safe and effective” vaccine will be approved, they say, and nine vaccine manufacturers issued a rare joint statement pledging not to prematurely seek regulatory review.
But what will it mean exactly when a vaccine is declared “effective”? To the public this seems fairly obvious. “The primary goal of a covid-19 vaccine is to keep people from getting very sick and dying,” a National Public Radio broadcast said bluntly.
Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said, “Ideally, you want an antiviral vaccine to do two things . . . first, reduce the likelihood you will get severely ill and go to the hospital, and two, prevent infection and therefore interrupt disease transmission.”
Yet the current phase III trials are not actually set up to prove either (table 1). None of the trials currently under way are designed to detect a reduction in any serious outcome such as hospital admissions, use of intensive care, or deaths. Nor are the vaccines being studied to determine whether they can interrupt transmission of the virus.