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Is the COVID-19 vaccine's fast approval a reason to worry? We asked Cincinnati doctors

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Posted at 6:45 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-24 18:45:58-05

A viewer named William wrote to WCPO from Liberty Township with a question: Why should he trust the COVID-19 vaccine without any available research on its longterm effects?

It’s a common worry for viewers who call and write to WCPO, many of whom say they aren’t opposed to the idea of a vaccine but feel anxious about the fast-tracked process that delivered Pfizer and Moderna’s shots to the market. The United States Food and Drug Administration approved their usage with an emergency use authorization, which is different from the much lengthier standard approval process that other products must pass before entering the market.

And because the vaccines are brand new, no data exists about their longterm impact on recipients’ health. No data will exist for many years.

We took William’s question straight to doctors in the Cincinnati area, who said they understand his concern but believe getting the vaccine is the best option under the current circumstance of a worldwide pandemic.

“I think the individual is correct that we don’t have longterm data,” said Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “I would agree that the mRNA technology that we’re using is newer. But I think the balance is, if you don’t get a vaccine and enough people in our community do the same, we are not going to get out of this pandemic.”

Dr. O’dell Owens, an MD who leads the equity-focused health nonprofit Interact for Health, was more blunt.

“My first response would be go ahead and buy his family a sympathy card,” he said. “Set that aside. Buy him a sympathy card. Fifty thousand people have died. Yes, we learn more about this virus as time goes on, but the alternative, to me, is death.”

Owens said acting quickly is the price of ending the pandemic and saving lives all over the world, including the lives of people who may feel worried about the newness of the vaccine.

“We look at that scale of justice — risk versus benefit,” he said. “To me, it clearly shows you take the vaccine when it's available to you."

He and Fichtenbaum pointed out emergency use authorizations like the ones granted to Pfizer and Moderna aren’t COVID-19-only — they’re used for other medications, too, and they’re employed only when no other treatment presents itself. Crucially, they can be used to authorize the use of new cancer treatments so patients don’t have to hope they survive the years-long wait for full FDA approval.

The FDA’s website describes emergency use authorization as a tool used to “diagnose, treat, or prevent serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions when certain statutory criteria have been met, including that there are no adequate, approved, and available alternatives.”

Fichtenbaum said he understands prospective patients’ worry but believes acting with limited information is sometimes unavoidable, even in science.

“We have a choice,” he said. “Sometimes the choices are not optimal. Sometimes in life we're faced with those bad choices, but we have to make one. Failing to make a choice is a choice."

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Senior Reporter Larry Seward is focusing his reporting on the COVID-19 vaccine to bring you answers and information. Contact Larry at 513-667-4804 or larry.seward@wcpo.com.