The Vaccine Project Newsletter: Fighting the virus, the bureaucracy and the naysayers

This week’s Vaccine Project Newsletter is 2,958 words long and will take you nine minutes to read.


Have you noticed, good people, that we have entered a 24/7 news cycle for COVID-19 vaccine all by itself?

Think about it: The vaccine story has something of relevance for virtually every section of what used to be your hometown daily newspaper. In addition to the local, national and international news, there are vaccine stories to be told in the sports, education, religion, arts, science and opinion pages, not to mention politics and government (two different things).

As we consume a seemingly endless diet of daily facts and figures — of hopes and disappointments, of successes and snafus — we can all be forgiven for experiencing just a touch of information whiplash.

First dose, second dose — when and how? Who’s on first and who’s up next in the vaccine queue? Can we administer a dose of equity somewhere along the way? Does age come before beauty? Should teachers go to the head of the class? Why is the line so long? And when does the movie start?

The plot thickens and the scenario becomes more complicated as mixed messages come from generally smart people with good intentions, while an ill wind of vaccine misinformation blows no good across the ultra-accessible channels of 21st century communication. Meanwhile, a billion-dollar federal vaccine awareness campaign is mostly on hold. Why prime the pump of demand when the well of supply is so low? 

There’s some good news: If you look and listen closely amid the noise, you’ll see and hear evidence of hope, signs that thoughtful people and corporate citizens—and, yes, the government —are stepping forward, stepping up and doing their part to help bring us together and see us through to a better, brighter place. We can be heroes, too.

This week’s Vaccine Project Newsletter is 2,958 words long and will take you nine minutes to read.

The communications effort

It’s not enough just to stem the tide of bad juju. Science needs to find and articulate its own voice of reason.

  • Can’t happen fast enough: Facebook is cracking down on anti-vax messaging, an elephant in the chat room for a long, long time.
  • A new campaign, Stronger, aims “to stop the spread of harmful misinformation about science, medicine and vaccines… by working with partner organizations, sharing correct information and arming people with ways to fight back.” Created by health nonprofit PGP (The Public Good Projects), Stronger is also backed by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
  • First Draft is another nonprofit countering onslaughts against the facts. Founded in 2015, it is well-prepared to engage the adversary, having investigated the role of mis- and disinformation in undermining polio vaccination in Pakistan and dengue vaccination in the Philippines. First Draft is now cataloguing specious COVID-19 vaccine narratives on social media.
  • But wait, there’s more. VaxFacts, a collaboration among industry, media, health systems and nonprofits, is making the HealthGuard browser extension available for free until June 30. The extension flags hoaxes, provides credibility ratings for hundreds of websites and guides users to sources of trusted information.
  • For the benefit of his 25 million Facebook followers, Arnold Schwarzenegger posted a video of his drive-through vaccination at Dodger Stadium saying, “Come with me if you want to live.” (See the Terminator movies for context). The 73-year-old movie star and former California governor (not an oxymoron) urged his fans to listen to the scientific experts and not go down “a rabbit hole of misinformation” on social media.
  • Steven Arsht, an orthopedic surgeon in New York’s Mount Sinai Health System, spent a month working in the ICU in 2020 and saw firsthand the devastation wrought by the virus. He’s also seen it in his practice: A patient who lived with extended family lost her mother, father, husband and son in one week. And he has seen it in his family, losing a 58-year-old brother-in-law to the disease. Arsht and family are now fighting back with a social media campaign, This Jab’s for You, “to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and to honor those we lost and those affected.”
  • Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla explains why he’s waiting his turn to be vaccinated: “I’m 59. I work from the office. I have no underlying conditions.” MM+M’s Marc Iskowitz reports on Bourla’s “fireside chat” at Columbia Business School’s Annual Healthcare Conference. His message to the vaccine-hesitant: “Please think about it. Even if you have a fear. Think that the society needs you now, to overcome this.”
  • One critical aspect of vaccine hesitancy that hasn’t gotten much ink is needlephobia. Hillel Hoffmann offers a candid confessional in Medical Bag, noting that fear of needles affects 20% to 50% of us. Hoffmann fully intends to receive his COVID-19 vaccine, but would appreciate a dose of patience, acceptance and understanding from the person at the other end of the syringe. 
  • Leading scientific advisors of several European Union countries have taken to Twitter to explain why “I’ll Do It” (i.e., get the vaccine). They all wear confident smiles, with sleeves rolled up and deltoids at the ready.
  • Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who stepped up as an Inoculation Influencer by getting his COVID-19 shot on YouTube, says today’s NBA stars should move up in the vaccination line only if they go public. This could be Kareem’s best assist ever.
  • The NFL Alumni Association and its 39 chapters are partnering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to raise awareness of COVID-19 safety and vaccination. Lecia Bushak has details in MM+M.
  • There’s a critical difference between vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal, and it can mean the difference between victory or defeat in our vaccination push. We can’t afford to dismiss folks who want to wait and see, the so-called “moveable middle.” Winning hearts and minds comes first; arms follow.
  • 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers attended the Super Bowl as guests of the NFL. That’s a nice optic and one that should be shown again and again on replay, along with Amanda Gorman’s ode to the devoted.
  • COVID doesn’t care if you are young, healthy and active. Arzu LeBlanc, executive director of Benchmark Senior Living at Chelmsford Crossings in Massachusetts, learned it the hard way with a debilitating two-week illness. Please take a minute—okay, a minute and 13 seconds—to watch her vaccination plea on video.

The takeaway: I’m rooting for hockey’s Great One, Wayne Gretzky (who turned 60 in January), to become a Super-Influencer by repeating his most famous line: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Source: Getty

The rollout

The focus is beginning to turn away from the sheer mechanics of mass vaccination and toward the question of how to do so equitably—as it should.

  • Disparities reached a new high, or low, when the Miami Herald reported that the COVID-19 vaccination rate was 50% on Florida’s Fisher Island, one of the richest zip codes on the planet, and just 2% in Opa-Locka, 18 miles but worlds away, where 40% of folks live in poverty. “We have learned nothing through this crisis,” said University of Miami professor Zinzi Bailey.
  • New York city and state are making an effort to reach Black, Latino and other underserved populations in at least two ways: by working to overcome vaccine hesitancy and by making vaccination sites more accessible. Those two factors—lack of access and abiding reluctance—are “steeped in decades of structural racism that the Biden administration’s health policy team will have to tackle,” Lecia Bushak writes in MM+M.
  • Hearing and heeding the outcry, the administration will start sending vaccine next week directly to federally qualified health centers in communities hard hit by the virus.
  • In a study of 69 U.S. counties with a combined population of 26 million, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have found that Black people are more likely than white people to live more than a mile from the closest vaccination center.
  • In Mississippi, where Black residents represent 38% of the population but are receiving only 15% of the vaccinations, state officials opened a drive-through clinic at a stadium in the capital city of Jackson, which is 80% Black.
  • On the semi-super Thursday before Super Sunday, Commissioner Roger Goodell promised that all 32 stadiums in the NFL will be available to serve as vaccination mega-sites. At least seven stadiums were already in play.
  • The Fort Worth-based Civitas Senior Living is taking matters into its own hands (and arms), Kimberly Bonvissuto reports in McKnight’s Senior Living. The company is now certified by the state to set up its own vaccination clinics without having to rely on, or wait for, the government or pharmacies to run the show. Civitas is seeking self-reliance in five other states where it does business, calling this a “game-changer.” 
  • The federal government’s $44 million vaccine registration website was a “predictable mess,” laments Johns Hopkins business professor Tinglong Dai in The Conversation. The system, offered for free, “turned out to be so poorly designed that all but nine states opted out before even trying to adopt it.” The few that did take the plunge have had an extended stay in Glitch City.
  • There is always good news somewhere: A survey of nearly 800 nursing homes finds that new COVID-19 cases dropped by 48% among residents and 33% among staff in the three weeks following the first vaccination clinic, Danielle Brown reports in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News. Yay.
  • More good news: The experience in Israel suggests that vaccines are just as safe and effective in a large population as they were in clinical trials. Big drops in infection rates and hospitalizations have occurred post-vaccination, even after taking into account repeated national lockdowns.

The takeaway: The rollout may be rocky—and that’s being kind—but results are what matter.

Source: Getty

The challenges

Dare we start entertaining the thought of what the world might look like in a few months down the vaccination road?

  • We’re vaccinated. Now what?” In McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, Dr. Eleanor Feldman Barbera suggests how nursing homes and assisted living facilities can return to some semblance of normality. The process has already begun, Kimberly Bonvissuto notes in McKnight’s Senior Living, in North Dakota, where 90% of facilities are allowing visitors back in.
  • What can I safely do now? is a question for all who get vaccinated. One suggestion: Don’t dwell on what you can’t do. “Doom-and-gloom messaging is not an effective way to encourage people to get the shots,” infectious disease specialist Monica Gandhi told the Washington Post. “You have to message hope and optimism.”
  • A trio of comms veterans have launched Project RESTART to help businesses navigate recovery from the pandemic, increase vaccine compliance in the workforce and support public health in a post-COVID world. It’s spearheaded by Andrew Gilman, CEO of CommCore Consulting Group, who helped J&J deal with the Tylenol poisoning crisis of 1982. Other leaders include Andrew McCormick, who headed up comms at Pfizer and Hershey, and Gary Stockman, the former CEO of Porter Novelli.
  • With a post-COVID world in mind, more than 40 national business and professional associations are asking the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to clarify what kinds of vaccination incentives they can legally offer to workers. Noting that vaccines offer “a pathway to safely restart the economy,” the groups are worried about liability and hoping that the EEOC will define permissible incentives “as broadly as possible.”
  • The Alabama Education Association is asking the state to prioritize teachers for vaccination; 39 public school employees have died of COVD-19. The Montgomery School System will stick with remote learning until teachers get vaccinated. The National Education Association puts it bluntly: “Educators need to have access to vaccines now, period.”
  • Millions of “essential” workers in frontline jobs—at meat plants and in grocery stores, in transportation and public safety—are wondering how essential they are as states pivot to age-based vaccination priorities. Just 13 states have moved grocery workers to the express lane.
  • Success depends not only on bringing vaccine to the people but also bringing people to the vaccine. The Pew Charitable Trusts offer a thoughtful take on the key role transportation plays, from offering rides to vaccination sites to visiting the homebound with shots in hand. In England, GP reports, vaccination sites will receive an extra £10 each time they venture out to vaccinate a housebound individual.

The takeaway: From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, from California to the New York island, where you stand (or, more likely, sit) in the vaccine line depends on where you live.

Source: Getty

The vaccine dashboard

So it’s vaccines versus viruses and variants. I’ll take vaccines and give the points.

  • J&J/Janssen Biotech has filed for emergency use authorization of its one-dose COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S., hot on the heels of promising Phase III results, Diana Ernst reports in MPR. An FDA Advisory Committee will review the data on February 26 in a meeting to be livestreamed on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
  • Rolling regulatory reviews (the three Rs) of the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine are underway in the U.S. U.K., European Union and Canada. The vaccine, the company’s first-ever brought to market, could add more than 100 million doses to the U.S. reservoir by June.
  • GSK and CureVac are partnering to develop next-generation mRNA COVID-19 vaccines that can protect against “multiple emerging variants… to keep one step ahead of the pandemic.” The goal is to have a new product available in 2022, with more in the pipeline.
  • Efficacy of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine (can we start calling it AzOx?) in a pivotal trial increased from 76% at four weeks to 82% at 12 weeks, Brian Park reports in MPR. The vaccine was 100% successful in preventing hospitalization and death. It’s in use in nearly 50 countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. Timeline for the U.S.? Possibly March.
  • Health officials in the U.K. are defending their decision to deliver the second dose of COVID-19 vaccine up to 12 weeks after the first, pointing to data (see item above) showing that good things (like better protection) come to those who wait.
  • The Russian space capsule—er, COVID-19 vaccine—named Sputnik V got a rocket-sized boost when The Lancet made note of its 92% efficacy in a clinical trial. With characteristic modesty, the Russians proclaimed victory and described Sputnik as “the vaccine for all mankind.”
  • British researchers will mix and match doses of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines to see if the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Think of it as a high-level match of mixed doubles in Wimbledon-land. AstraZeneca is also doing a mix-and-match trial with Sputnik.
  • Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock has a hefty to-do list, promising a rapid review of rapidly developed booster vaccine candidates and offering guidance for manufacturers on adapting their vaccines to keep pace with – or, better yet, a step ahead of – the shape-shifting virus. 
  • Canada is making no apologies for being the only G7 country receiving vaccine supply in the first wave of the COVAX global distribution program. Poorer countries not willing to wait for COVAX are cutting their own deals with manufacturers. 
  • The mRNA platform, which seems to have been built with lightning-quick speed, was in fact many years under construction. Now that it’s here, vaccine candidates can be chemically synthesized “in a few days,” offering a “nimble plug-and-play approach” that will be needed for future pandemics, said Beate Kampmann, director of the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The takeaway: The key words above are not just “plug and play,” but also “future pandemics.”

Source: Getty

The resources

“Google” as a verb wasn’t added to the dictionary until 2006. Now the world is at our fingertips, and that’s mostly a good thing.

  • The Center for Countering Digital Hate has issued a “playbook” showing how anti-vax groups have been planning for months to disrupt the COVID-19 vaccination effort.
  • Can’t tell a strain from a variant or a variant from a mutation? Join the club. Or read up on them in a variety of helpful primers, from STAT to National Geographic to the CDC.
  • The COVID-19 Insights Center is designed to help organizations communicate regularly and effectively throughout the pandemic. It’s the work of Project RCAID (Rapid Collection Analysis Interpretation and Dissemination), a partnership of PGP and Zignal Labs. RCAID wants to be for communicators what disease surveillance is to clinicians.
  • We hear so much about the need for vaccination policy to be data-driven. Well, here’s a thought, courtesy of two scholars at the Brookings Institution: Make use of health information exchange platforms—typically charged with tracking lab results, Rxs and hospital admissions—and put them to work identifying vaccine candidates by age or health risk, monitoring vaccination status in real time and reporting vaccination side effects.
  • Kaiser Health News just reported that “huge gaps in vaccination data make it impossible to know who got the shots.” In its first report on the demographics of the vaccination effort, the CDC acknowledged that data on race and ethnicity were reported for only 52% of vaccine recipients.

The takeaway: What we know about the day-to-day whereabouts of vaccine supply is accurately described as “opaque.” “You can’t track the vaccine the way you track an Amazon package,” public health expert Amesh Adalja told Kaiser Health News.

...and loads of songs for Valentine’s Day

Billboard’s Top 50 “Love” Songs of All Time

I’ll Never Find Another You, The Seekers

You Send Me, Sam Cooke

I Only Want to Be With You, Dusty Springfield

All of Me, John Legend

All I Ask of You, from “Phantom of the Opera”

Just the Way You Are, Bruno Mars

Wonderful Tonight, Eric Clapton

Can’t Help Falling in Love, Elvis Presley

Piece of My Heart, Janis Joplin

Indeed, What the World Needs Now is love, sweet love… and more vaccines. Thanks for spending time with us today.

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