Listening to the science on COVID-19
Managing for Society
January 5, 2021
As 2020 came to a close, I was happy to hear that Pfizer had applied with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency authorization of its COVID-19 vaccine. A lot of people were getting quite disappointed hearing news about the Pfizer vaccine being rolled out in the US and the UK without any news about when we were getting ours. Accusations of government agencies “dropping the ball” on the vaccine’s procurement quickly spread on the Internet. Unfortunately, local laws are quite strict on vaccines for the public. Hence, regulatory approval is required and vaccine manufacturers have to apply to get the approval process started.
Though the FDA estimates approval of the vaccine within the month, actual delivery is expected to come several months later. Meanwhile, we have to sit tight and keep ourselves and everyone else safe from the virus by continuing to listen to the science, that is, wearing masks, distancing from others and sanitizing our hands regularly.
Meanwhile, we need to think about what we should know to decide when it’s our time to get a vaccine. Choosing to be vaccinated is an important life decision in any case but it becomes critical if the vaccine is very new and was developed at a quarter of the time it used to take. We will need to wear our science hats to help us navigate this important decision and balance protection versus risk.
One of the basic tools of scientific thinking is statistics. The famed British author, H.G. Wells is often quoted as saying that “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.” The pandemic has proven how correct Wells was. Ever since the start of the pandemic quarantine in March 15, not a day has passed without the news and other forms of media blasting all sorts of statistics at the public. Trend graphs on TV and online show numbers of COVID-19 cases, recoveries and deaths.
Let’s start with risk. I checked the Department of Health (DOH) Covid-19 tracker at https://doh.gov.ph/covid19tracker and found out that Pasig, where I live, has over 12,600 Covid-19 cases. The average weekly number of cases reached a peak of 759 in mid-August but is relatively lower now at 134 cases. Weekly deaths peaked at 27 in mid-August but has dropped to one per week. I realize that these data only capture those being tested but the decreasing trends are quite encouraging since I hardly leave the house anyway. Nationally, though, our positivity rate started increasing mid-December and is now 5.9%; above the international recommended maximum of 5%. This signals a possible increase in community spread of the virus. People may have begun relaxing on their compliance with the health guidelines as the holiday mood set in. If this continues, government may tighten quarantine restrictions. I’m also keeping an eye out for reports on the new, more infectious virus from the UK which I expect will affect the statistics when it arrives.
But I have to take all published or online statistics with a grain of salt, even if they come from official sources like the DOH. Data are collected, compiled, reported, and interpreted by human beings who are subject to misperceptions, stresses, and time and resource limitations, among other challenges. Therefore, errors can creep into the statistics. Also, there can be delays in data reporting so I need to consider this. Hence, I need to ask competent experts to help me make sense of the statistics I see.
What about protection from the coming vaccine? Since the Pfizer vaccine was approved in the UK and the US, people have been talking about its reported efficacy rate of 95% based on clinical trials. This means that during the company’s scientific experiments with a sample of people, the vaccinated ones had 95% fewer cases of COVID-19 than those who did not receive the vaccine. The minimum standard of WHO for an emergency vaccine is 50%, so 95% looks good to me. But I have to remember that the 95% efficacy rate is based on how the vaccine performed under ideal conditions, but outside the Philippines. It will be a while before we know the actual effectiveness rate of the vaccine in the general population – under real-world Philippine conditions. Also, I should look at the safety statistics but this can be even trickier so a good conversation with my doctor can really help here, too.
It will be months before most of us who are not in priority groups have access to any kind of vaccine. Meanwhile, scientific thinking, mindful attention to the statistics, and conversations with experts can help us “vaccinate” our minds against any dangerous misconceptions. At this stage, clear-headed thinking is still our best defense against the virus. Let us keep safe in 2021.
Dr. Benito Teehankee is the Jose E. Cuisia Professor of Business Ethics and Head of the Business for Human Development Network at De La Salle University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org