So much for pharma earning trust back

SUMMARY: Business by press release has made pharma executives a lot of money but we still haven’t seen any over reviewed data on COVID 19 vaccines.

report released Thursday by the University of California at Los Angeles researchers said that 66 percent of Los Angeles health-care workers who responded to an online questionnaire (not a randomized sample) said they would delay taking a vaccine. The American Nurses Association, a national professional organization, said one-third of its members do not intend to take the vaccine, and an additional third are undecided.

Pfizer and Moderna have provided data from their large-scale Phase 3 trials only via news releases, which contained the highly promising news that both vaccines were 90 percent effective or more and have not presented any serious safety concerns.

The results of trials were announced in press releases rather than peer-reviewed papers. The reported efficacies reported are mainly against disease and not infection. One of the frustrating things about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is that it can spread between people while causing few or no symptoms. Though the Oxford-AstraZeneca trial did regularly screen volunteers for infection, how these vaccines perform at preventing infection rather than just disease remains unclear at the moment.

Science by press release

Press releases only include the details the company wants to share and are carefully crafted. The Pfizer/BioNTech press release on November 9, for instance, said their vaccine was 90 percent effective at preventing the disease caused by the virus but didn’t offer a demographic breakdown of those results. The press release also didn’t say whether it reduced the severity of the illness in the 10 percent who did get it, nor did it say whether some participants may have caught asymptomatic Covid-19 that could be passed on to others.

AstraZeneca’s announcement on Monday that its vaccine is 70 percent effective also lacked details: It didn’t say how many of the 131 Covid-19 cases among trial participants developed among people taking the placebo, versus how many developed among people who had received a half-dose of the vaccine or a full dose—important information for evaluating the early results.

Moderna’s top management has, collectively, sold more than $350 million in stock or investments in the company over the course of this year. On the same day that Pfizer announced that its vaccine with BioNTech was 90 percent effective, for instance, CEO Albert Bourla sold $5.6 million.

Pharma companies have also been capitalizing on the pandemic and positive press releases more broadly. Vaccine makers like Inovio and Vaxart, which don’t have late-stage vaccine candidates, are still benefiting from the wave of investment. Gilead, which produces the antiviral remdesivir, announced in a press release that it was “aware of positive data” on remdesivir, despite the drug not performing well in clinical trials.

When the vaccines are available, I still expect that there will be lines everywhere, but the public deserves to know more before getting vaccinated. Some pharma companies are using the press to make their executives wealthy when over 30 million Americans are having trouble paying for food and rent. It seems that we were premature to think that pharma is earning trust back.