As the second week of December 2020 wound down, the days were growing shorter, and a long winter of rising COVID-19 infections was taking hold. Hope was in short supply. Then, at the end of an eight-hour, 41-minute meeting of the Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC), Dr. Archana Chatterjee surprised many observers by casting a vote against recommending an anticipated measure of hope: Emergency Use Authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
But in her dedication to transparency, the dean of RFU’s Chicago Medical School was eager to offer an explanation that she wasn’t able to provide as VRBPAC officials tallied the 17–4 vote in favor of recommending the emergency use. She spent that evening of Dec. 10 and the following week responding to a stream of media inquiries, detailing her specific concern that the vaccine was being recommended for “individuals 16 years of age and older” without complete safety and efficacy data for recipients younger than 18.
“Let’s say you’re top of the list,” CNBC’s Shepard Smith asked her during a live-via-remote interview on his Dec. 11 program. “Would you be the first to get this shot, or no?”
“I absolutely would be. If it was my priority risk group’s turn, I would be first in line,” Dr. Chatterjee responded, adding that the data showed “this is a safe and effective vaccine” for adults.
This chapter of the ongoing, history-shaping COVID pandemic was instructive for anyone trying to make sense of the flood of information about vaccines. It also illustrated how the answers to questions in the bioscience realm are often complex.
As with all things that have yet to pass, the future of health care is still being written. In this issue of Helix, we explore how public health clinics might better engage and serve at-risk communities; how more nurses are key to filling gaps in health care; and how COVID survivors need support for their mental as well as physical well-being.
And Dr. Chatterjee joins us for a look back at the road that led to more than 50 million vaccinations administered nationwide in the two months after she demonstrated that not every question comes with a simple answer.
Dan Moran is the communications director in the RFU Division of Marketing and Brand Management.