Blossom, Sarah Nelmes, & Dr. Bruce Gellin

November 9, 2020

Despite its confusing title, Dr. Bruce Gellin’s recent webinar for the Global Interdependence Center, “The Coronavirus Pandemic: The End of the Beginning or the Beginning of the End?” clarified several covid themes.

Dr. Gellin is President of Global Immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute, and refreshingly strict about where his knowledge ends. He does not think “this disease will be eradicated,” and underscored that herd immunity is a theory, “not a scientific view, but a political view. Not mainstream science, and dangerous.”

He fully understands public skepticism about “Operation Warp Speed,” which suggests corners are getting cut, thereby undermining public confidence in a vaccine. In fact, the number of people who would be vaccinated if a vaccine were available has fallen since April. To Gellin, the fact that some trials were put on clinical hold to look into side effects suggests the system is working. He believes communications concerning the military’s role in distribution were confusing. They will work in logistics, images of camo-wearing troops injecting the public are nonsense. Another slide showed that, worldwide, the Chinese are the most willing to be vaccinated, the Russians the least.

He believes investing in the science we need to understand the disease, and overlaying a vaccine on top of other social and behavioral aspects will bring us to a different normal, but not what we had a year ago.

Dr. Gellin cited a poll taken 15 years ago concerning who should decide how vaccines are distributed. Hint: Not the White House, but the CDC and a rather distant second, state health agencies. He stressed the importance of “foundational ethical principles,” in allotment of vaccines, including maximum benefit, equal concern, with subsets dignity, worth and value, and the mitigation of health inequities exposed in the pandemic.

He batted down the “more testing = more cases,” with, “Testing doesn’t put people in the hospital or in the morgue.”

To our question, what does it mean that we have never developed a vaccine for a coronavirus, he said that the reason we were not starting from scratch with Covid-19, why warp speed can be so speedy, is that we had prior knowledge of the “role of the spike” from work we did on SARS and then MERS vaccines, both taken off the table as those two versions of coronavirus slipped away.  

But he said MERS was a “wake-up call we didn’t wake up for.” He believes we should have continued working on coronavirus vaccines after SARS, but understand why we didn’t, asking us to imagine what the Congressional hearings would be like if we were spending billions developing a vaccine for a disease no longer perceived to be a threat. The onset of the second major coronavirus was a missed opportunity.

Throughout the webinar he touched on public trust, noting that those who rely on social media for information are far more likely to be distrustful of vaccines. if we have a vaccine and people don’t take it, we don’t have a vaccine. Gellin cites a piece in Nature that suggests the “explosive growth” in anti-vax views indicates they will dominate in a decade.

That distrust is nothing new. He included the cartoon below, circulating 200 years ago when Dr. Edward Jenner, the father of you know what, had observed that milkmaids were resistant to smallpox because they were exposed to cowpox in the course of their duties, and developed the smallpox vaccine from cow scrapings. Please note the cows’ heads and horns springing out of human bodies as they are vaccinated.

The hide of the cow, Blossom, who gave cowpox to Sarah Nelmes, the milkmaid, apparently hangs in St. George’s Medical School library, evidence of a true team spirit.


— Philippa Dunne & Doug Henwood

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