On Monday, Columbia’s COVID-19 vaccine symposium kicked off with a press conference featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, and President Bollinger. Deputy Events Editor Grace Fitzgerald-Diaz and Daily Editor Henry Astor contributed to this report.
Columbia Medical School’s vaccine symposium could not have come at a more relevant time. Though the event was planned before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it comes as the COVID-19 vaccine is beginning to be distributed less than a year after the start of vaccine development. This is a huge achievement: even when vaccine development is accelerated, it is a process that typically takes years, not months.
In addition to the four speakers, WHO Chief Scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Assistant Director-General of WHO Dr. Mariângela Simão, and Columbia’s Dr. Marc Grodman also fielded questions from reporters.
Each speaker gave a brief statement at the beginning of the event—with almost all of them emphasizing the need for developed countries to ensure access to vaccines for less developed countries, rather than only considering the supply for their own country—followed by questions from journalists from around the globe.
The issue of equitable vaccine distribution was a subject of both the speakers’ individual statements as well as questions from the media. On this issue, Dr. Tedros said in his opening statement, “This is not a matter of charity, it is a matter of epidemiology.” Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, echoed these sentiments. In his opening statement, he noted that “the challenge now is getting [the vaccine] distributed in an equitable way,” continuing on to say, “an outbreak in any part of the world is an outbreak in every part of the world.”
A major subject of discussion surrounding equitable vaccine distribution was participation in the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program. COVAX is one of the three pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT), which is co-led by the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and serves as a method to increase access to the COVID-19 vaccine in developing nations. Dr. Tedros noted that France has committed 5% of its vaccine doses to COVAX. The US, however, has not made such a commitment. When a Swiss reporter asked if the US had plans to commit doses of its vaccines to COVAX in the future, Dr. Fauci responded that he did not know and would have to inquire further, adding that the Biden administration has committed $4 billion to the program. When Dr. Tedros spoke about France’s admirable commitment, he also noted that in terms of contributions from other G7 nations that “money is not the only problem we face,” raising the question of why the US has not stepped up to make a more meaningful contribution. Responding to a question from a German journalist about whether the US will commit to donating vaccine doses, Dr. Messonnier also reiterated that as of right now, we simply do not know whether that will be the case.
Another major topic of discussion on the issue of equitable vaccine distribution was getting the vaccine to developing countries that may not currently have the capacity to manufacture enough vaccine doses in-country. Dr. Fauci and Dr. Swaminathan stressed the need for building the capacity for manufacturing vaccines in-country in order to eliminate reliance on vaccine donations.
There were also questions from multiple journalists about the safety of the vaccine specifically with regard to anaphylactic reactions. Dr. Fauci noted that an extremely small number of people have an adverse reaction to the vaccine: only 4-5 people per million have an anaphylactic reaction to the Pfizer vaccine and only 2-3 per million to the Moderna vaccine. Both he and Dr. Messonnier noted that those with a history of adverse reactions to vaccines are observed for 30 minutes after injection, as opposed to the standard 15, and that the few cases of anaphylactic reaction have all occurred within this 30-minute period. Dr. Fauci also noted, though, that even those with a history of anaphylactic reactions to vaccines can and should be vaccinated, but should make sure to do so at a site where treatment for anaphylaxis is available.
All of the speakers noted that the development of a vaccine in 11 months is a huge scientific triumph. The uniting theme among their concerns was that now that we have a vaccine, we must figure out not just how to distribute it, but how to do so in an equitable manner. In the words of Dr. Tedros, “This is no longer a test of science, but a test of character.”
vaccine vials via Bwog Archives