Merck CEO Ken Frazier Speaks On The Trade-Off Between Speed And Safety With A Covid-19 Vaccine

Merck CEO Ken Frazier Speaks On The Trade-Off Between Speed And Safety With A Covid-19 Vaccine

Merck CEO Ken Frazier speaks about the trade-off between speed and safety in developing a covid-19 vaccine: “The urgency of the situation will cause us to try and move quickly but never at the expense of safety,” he said. Photo: Merck CEO Kenneth C. Frazier participates in the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit in New York, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Governments, scientists and pharmaceutical companies all over the world are desperate for a covid-19 vaccine that can save lives and restore ailing economies, and they want it sooner than later.

Pharmaceutical giant Merck is one of almost 150 pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine. Merck CEO Ken Frazier wants you to know that a safe vaccine will not be available for at least a year.

Merck expects to go into human testing by the end of the year, Frazier said during a Bloomberg interview. “We know that the urgency of the situation will cause us to try and move quickly but never ever at the expense of human safety,” Frazier said.

Researchers are racing to develop more than 145 vaccines around the world that could potentially prevent covid-19 infections.

“More than 20 of them are already in human trials with the hope that something could be available to the general public by early 2021,” Fortune reported. 

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But no matter how fast they move, Frazier said, the FDA won’t even approve a vaccine for emergency use and there will still have to be six months of observations. “So the fastest it could be is a year from now,” Frazier stressed.

Frazier has consistently opposed rushing. Back in May, he said his company does not “accept the concept of a race. Our goal is to develop a vaccine that is safe.”

Regardless, some members of the public are skeptical and distrustful of a coronavirus vaccine. 

“I’m not seeing an improvement in public trust,” said Michael Neidorff, CEO of Centene, a health insurance company reporting $75 billion in revenue last year, in a Fortune interview. 

Why the lack of trust? The general public doesn’t seem to feel the process is transparent enough. “Trust isn’t going to come from the top down, especially in this political environment,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, executive vice president and chief patent officer at Merck.

“The CEO of Merck said there is a trade-off between speed and safety with a vaccine. He’s not ‘anti-vaxx.’ Those who are concerned about this trade-off are not ANTI-VAXX. They are PRO-VAXX, just not this one, at this SPEED w/ an environment of DISTRUST of GOV”, tweeted Jamarlin Martin, founder of The Moguldom Nation.

The public should be educated about vaccines, according to health insurance CEO Neidorff. “People don’t understand the safety of vaccines. We’re going to need to work with physicians and locals to set examples.”

This also means to the public should be aware of the risks, especially ones associated with rushing a vaccine to the market.

“Let me start by saying, I think when people tell the public that there’s going to be a vaccine by the end of 2020, for example, I think they do a grave disservice to the public. I think at the end of the day, we don’t want to rush the vaccine before we’ve done rigorous science. We’ve seen in the past, for example, with the swine flu, that that vaccine did more harm than good. We don’t have a great history of introducing vaccines quickly in the middle of a pandemic. We want to keep that in mind,” Frazier said in an interview with the Harvard Business Review.

He added that a safe vaccine will take time to develop. “Well, first of all, it takes a lot of time. I think the record for the fastest vaccine ever brought to market was Merck in the mumps vaccine. It took about four years. Our most recent vaccine for Ebola took five and a half years,” he explained to HBR “And why does it take so long? First of all, it requires a rigorous scientific assessment. And here we didn’t even understand the virus itself or how the virus affects the immune system. We’re starting there. We’re starting with a spike protein as the antigen. What we’re hoping to be able to do with these different approaches is to create a vaccine that we can study quickly that can be both safe and effective and can be durable…What worries me the most is that the public is so hungry, so desperate to go back to normalcy, that they are pushing us to move things faster and faster. But ultimately, if you’re going to use a vaccine in billions of people, you better know what that vaccine does.”

It’s important to launch grass-roots efforts as soon as possible to get ahead of any problems and begin explaining the importance of vaccinations, said Merck’s Gerberding. 

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Others, like top immunologist Dr. James Hildreth, doubt there will even be a vaccine for covid-19.

You’d think after 39 years of being aware of HIV and studying it, we’d have a vaccine for that. But we don’t. That’s why I’m very cautious in telling people we will have a vaccine for covid-19,” said Hildreth, a Rhodes Scholar, in an April Wall Street Journal report.