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The latest South Carolina Public Radio News reports on the spread of the coronavirus and efforts to fight it.

When a COVID Vaccine is Developed, Will People Take It?

Numerous pharmaceutical manufacturers are working hard to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.  Once that's done, the big question to be answered is, will people take it?
Arek Socha via Pixabay

Drug companies have been working furiously to produce a vaccine for COVID-19, with hopes for one late this year or early 2021.  As development gets nearer, an important question has arisen among some medical professionals:  once the vaccine has been produced, will people trust it enough to take it?

"That's the million-dollar question," said University of South Carolina immunologist and vice president of research Prakash Nagarkotti.  "And what is very perplexing for people who are experts in this field is that it causes very mild or virtually asymptomatic types of infections in most people, almost 80 percent.  And that might make people kind of hesitate and say, ' you know, should I be volunteering to take the vaccine?  Or should I just wait and see, to see the safety and efficacy of the vaccine?'  So that's going to be a challenge." 

Nagarkotti said people could possibly hesitate to take the vaccine for two reasons.  "One is clearly the fact that this vaccine is gonna be developed and be most probably made available in record time," noting that normally, developing a vaccine takes several years.  "But the fact that this vaccine is going to be made available maybe in a matter of less than a year, that raises some concerns among the public in terms of...the companies that are trying to manufacture this, are they trying to cut short some of the safety measures that are necessary to do a thorough study?"  

In addition, there are many people who refuse to wear face masks and social distance.  Nagarkotti said these are the people who may have the attitude that federal agencies should not be telling them what to take or not take, "and therefore, vaccine is one of these things."

But according to MUSC microbiologist and immunologist Michael Schmidt, vaccines have been successful in the past, so no one should hesitate to take a COVID vaccine.

"We know vaccination works," he asserted.  "We know that we can successfully eliminate a very devastating disease, smallpox, which is a global killer," and which has been virtually wiped off the earth by vaccinations. "Polio, which was a crippling disease," has been all but eliminated from the Western hemisphere.  "We know vaccinations work, and in the time of COVID-19, what we need to do is stop its spread.  And the only way we can effectively do that is by reducing the numbers of susceptible hosts...if we want to get out of the mask-wearing business, and the physical distancing, the only way we can easily do that is through a mass vaccination campaign."

And for that campaign to work, to develop a "herd immunity" which will defeat the disease, the doctors said science has a goal of 70 percent of the population being vaccinated.    

However, people have grown more skeptical of vaccines in recent years, and Schmidt gave a possible explanation.  "When the polio and measles vaccines were first put out to the general public, we were actively engaged in the space program," he said.  "If you were a scientist or an astronaut or a rocket engineer, you were effectively an NBA superstar.  And today we don't hold the scientific process is an great esteem as we did a number of years ago when were were engaged in the space race."  He added with a trace of hope, "I think what COVID-19 may do is encourage a science Renaissance."

The immunologist said he hoped through publicity from television, DHEC and the governor's office, that people would get the message that being immunized is a way to protect others, "and by taking the vaccine, we'll help our neighbor.  And that's what South Carolina is all about.  I've never seen a South Carolinian not help his neighbor.  South Carolinians, when it comes time to show up, we show up.  And I'm hoping that South Carolina shows up."