Experts in immunology, epidemiology, and infectious diseases discussed the current state of the Covid-19 pandemic in a forum jointly presented by the Harvard School of Public Health and National Public Radio on Friday afternoon.
The event, entitled “Pandemic Update: Vaccines, Children, Equity, and More,” was moderated by Scott Hensley, senior health editor on NPR’s Science Desk. The panel featured HSPH professors Kizzmekia S. Corbett and William “Bill” P. Hanage, Massachusetts General Hospital infectious disease specialist Amir M. Mohareb, and Boston Childrens’ Hospital senior pediatrician Richard “Rick” Malley.
The forum began with a discussion surrounding the recent approval and rollout of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to younger children.
Corbett kickstarted the conversation by emphasizing the safety of the vaccine.
“I think that parents, grandparents, and anyone else who is a guardian of a child need to understand that getting vaccines authorized and approved for any age group, whether it be adults, elderly people, and then, now, children, comes with a process that is highly vetted by the regulators at the Food and Drug Administration, and comes with a lot of data,” Corbett said.
Malley and Hanage then pointed out the value of administering Covid-19 vaccines to younger children, such as feelings of relief and comfort from knowing their child is protected from severe illness caused by Covid-19. Hanage said, however, that “the real headline impacts of the pandemic depend on the proportion of older people who have been vaccinated.”
The conversation then transitioned to vaccine inequities across the globe.
Mohareb said he believed the U.S. and other rich nations should donate their excess vaccines and supplies to countries with limited vaccination accessibility, but explained how money dictates how vaccinations are distributed.
“We do not distribute essential medicines and essential supplies based on human dignity or need. We distribute it based on money,” he said.
The panelists also discussed vaccine hesitancy and efforts to counter it, with a focus on listening to those with remaining questions rather than judging them.
“One of the ways in which we lose the [vaccine] debate is when we start being disrespectful of the fact that some people have genuine concerns, whether they are founded in science or in gut feeling or in misinformation from different websites,” Malley said.
Finally, the panelists shifted to the future of Covid-19, discussing new potential treatments and variants along with the need to keep preventative measures in place.
Hanage discussed these points from an epidemiologist’s perspective, explaining that “we cannot be sure” of Covid-19’s future, which will depend on levels of transmission and infection.
“If those [levels] remain relatively mild, then we might see, probably, seasonal peaks of disease, like the other coronaviruses,” Hanage said.
“There will continue to be people getting sick, and there will continue to be some people dying, and they will predominantly be older, but they will be far smaller in terms of numbers,” he added.
In order to reach this state and combat variants of Covid-19, Hange urges people to get vaccinated.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, even if we’re in a less woody part of the woods,” he said.