Amid optimism, caution
When news broke earlier this week that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has shown over 90 percent efficacy in initial trials, the world cheered. It feels like we’ve been holding our breath too long for an end to the pandemic, and now that a vaccine candidate is showcasing impressive numbers, we’re letting out a sigh of relief. But scientists, ever the harbinger of unpleasant news, say it’s too early to celebrate. We should listen.
For one, this news first came out as a press release—an announcement straight from the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer with its partner company BioNTech. In the media, there is a practice called “science by press release,” where developments are disseminated to the public from a company’s publicity materials. A press release is one such publicity material. While factual, it’s written and distributed to make an organization look good. The media then picks it up, and sometimes, plays it up.
It’s not necessarily a harmful practice for medical companies to send out public announcements. In situations like this pandemic, lay people would want to hear about what researchers and institutions are doing to combat a constantly-developing health crisis. It’s not a bad thing to stay updated about scientific developments.
The problem is when these marketed pieces of information become a source of false hope. Much of the medical news we read in the papers today are tipped off by companies’ promotional materials, and not all of them have undergone scientific scrutiny. What we’re reading could simply be a report of what a company has done, whether or not it has been independently reviewed by scientific bodies, and whether or not it is ready for popularization.
As of Thursday, Nov. 12, the Pfizer vaccine has been studied by the drugmakers themselves, but has not undergone an independent evaluation process called peer review. (The companies do say they plan to submit their paper for peer-review publication.)
Until a paper has been peer-reviewed and published in a credible scientific journal, it remains a “rough draft” in the eyes of the scientific community. It may still have errors and weak points that may make it unfit as a source of the public’s confidence.
Science takes time. This can be frustrating during this pandemic as literally thousands die each day, but at the same time, we can’t latch our hope on whichever product comes out of a lab first.
Media reportage can also diminish some important nuance to scientific information. For example, the statement that the vaccine candidate is “over 90 percent effective” is not only sweeping but also potentially misleading.
Academics emphasize a distinction between “efficacy” and “effectiveness.” Dr. Zania Stamataki, senior lecturer in viral immunology at the University of Birmingham, puts it this way: “[E]fficacy is the performance of a treatment under ideal and controlled circumstances [such as clinical trials], and effectiveness is performance under real-world conditions.” A vaccine that has not been deployed in the real world cannot yet be measured for effectiveness.
Distinctions like this are vital in science, but translating that science into publicly accessible language can be tricky. Stamataki shares, “I was recently asked not to use the term ‘efficacy’ for my radio interview because ‘listeners won’t understand what it means’.”
It is a challenge for the media to communicate to the public without sacrificing the integrity of scientific information. Likewise, we newsreaders and listeners must critically assess the information that reaches us.
News articles about coronavirus vaccines usually tout big numbers and projections. As they dazzle us, we may forget to question what we read or hear. Worse, we might lapse on our safety practices just because we feel confident after reading an encouraging headline.
Right now, safety protocols are still far more tangible than vaccines as our protection from COVID-19. While we feel optimistic about good news, we can’t let our optimism get the better of our caution. We keep our distance and our masks on, we stay home as much as we can, and we watch with judicious minds the measured, steady progress of science.
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