This week Johnson & Johnson halted its trial of a vaccine for COVID-19 after a participant became ill. Meanwhile safety trials for a Moderna vaccine are continuing in Georgia. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge has more on the future of a potential vaccine.

Dr. Robert Redfield wears a mask with his hands in front of his mouth.
Caption
In this Sept. 16, 2020, file photo Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield appears at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on a "Review of Coronavirus Response Efforts" on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool, File

Public health is by nature political, Emory University Rollins School of Public Health Dean Dr. James Curran says, but public health should never become a partisan political issue during a pandemic.

“Partisan politics leads to divisiveness rather than the idea of coming together and developing consensus as a country or as a state,” Curran said during a video briefing Tuesday.

That the coronavirus has become a partisan political issue and eroded trust in the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a mistake, he said.

In his 25-year career at the CDC, Curran led the task force on HIV/AIDS at a time when very little was known about the disease that was killing mostly healthy, young individuals.

While the AIDS epidemic was also politicized, Curran described its issue as one of neglect rather than interference — the latter of which he considers to be worse.

“I was there with the Reagan administration and Ronald Reagan didn't say the word ['AIDS'] in public for six years after the first cases were reported,” Curran said. “But CDC was never prevented from saying what we thought needed to be said and we were never kept away from the press the way the CDC now is with COVID-19.”

Now, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading disease expert, and the CDC both have been demonized, Curran said.

“If prevention builds upon science and we are to, say, recommend as government that people get a vaccine, those recommendations will come from some of the same people that have been demonized in the past as being part of the 'deep state,'” Curran said.

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Curran described President Donald Trump as largely “anti-science.”

“He wants to be reelected president of the United States and he'll take whatever information he has to pursue that strategy,” Curran said. “From a public health point of view, it's not helpful to have a lack of transparency and misinterpretation of information.”

Additionally, Curran accused the Trump Administration of dealing in “wishful thinking” equivalent to waiting on a magic bullet.

That could be a vaccine, but Curran said a COVID-19 vaccine will not herald a return to “normal,” and people are only likely to want a vaccine if they trust its development and efficacy.

“Whether a person gets the vaccine will depend upon whether they think it's 50% effective, like flu vaccines or 95% effective like measles vaccines,” Curran said, “and whether they trust the people telling them to get it.”

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Prevention builds upon trust, he said, and that trust is different in various communities.

“So, will the Black communities trust the government to say you should get this COVID-19 vaccine when there's been demonizing of the people who have presented this in the past?” Curran asked.

Half of the coronavirus cases in the United States have been among Black and Latinx people, but just 10% of those participating in clinical trials represent those minorities.

According to Census data, Black or African Americans represent 13.4% of the U.S. population, yet the Food and Drug Administration reports that those populations make up only 5% of clinical trial participants. The disparity is even greater for those of Hispanic or Latinx origin. They represent 18.1% of the U.S. population but only 1% of clinical trial participants.

“They're not going to do it because the president says to do it,” Curran said. “They're going to do it because they believe the science and they believe their peers who tell him to do it.”

The experts whom people should trust — the CDC officials — have been cut off from speaking to the press, Curran said.

“They've been totally silenced from the point of view of speaking out on their own about the various hundreds of (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) articles they have and their implications,” he said. “That didn't even happen in the AIDS epidemic.”

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Watching faith fade in the experts who advise the public on all vaccines, including influenza and hepatitis B, is discouraging and extremely short-sighted, Curran said.

“If we don't trust them, who can we trust?” he asked.