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EDITORIAL

No more drama in communicating about vaccine effectiveness

A flap between AstraZeneca and public health officials offered a case study in what not to do to maintain public confidence.

A Lebanese health worker prepares a shot of the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine in Beirut on March 29.
A Lebanese health worker prepares a shot of the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine in Beirut on March 29.ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Shoring up public confidence in COVID-19 vaccines is more important than ever as we try to reach the point where enough people achieve immunity to stop the spread of the virus and end this pandemic. As it is, officials warn that we must remain vigilant in our efforts to slow the spread in order to get back to normal, given a recent spike in cases in the United States despite a steady increase in vaccinations.

So it’s crucial that AstraZeneca and other vaccine makers, as well as the National Institutes of Health and public officials, adopt a new mantra when it comes to public communications about vaccine efficacy: No more drama.

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We don’t need any more flaps like the one that unfolded publicly last week between AstraZeneca and US public health agencies over data the pharmaceutical company released about the efficacy of its vaccine. Such confusion — particularly over a vaccine that has been shown to be effective — undermines public trust in the entire vaccine approval process. And the worst part is that it was all so unnecessary, except perhaps as a case study about what not to do from this point on.

It started when AstraZeneca inexplicably used what it later called “outdated” information in a public announcement touting the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine, claiming it was 79 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19.

That caused an independent panel overseeing the study of the vaccine, in a letter to the company and US officials, to accuse the company of “cherry-picking” its data for better results. The National Institutes of Health then issued a rare statement that said the panel “expressed concern that AstraZeneca may have included outdated information from that trial, which may have provided an incomplete view of the efficacy data.”

AstraZeneca then clarified the study’s results, saying more complete study data show the vaccine is 76 percent effective.

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“So to me, it just seems that they were shooting themselves in the foot,” Tara C. Smith, professor of epidemiology at Kent State University, said of AstraZeneca. “I just don’t understand it, because I do think the vaccine looks really good.” The company had already faced hurdles to its COVID-19 vaccine being distributed in several countries in Europe over concerns about it causing blood clots — a side effect that has not at this point been clearly proven to be of substantial risk.

Questions about drug study data are not unusual in the federal approval process, such as the panel approval that precedes full FDA review, which AstraZeneca faces in the weeks ahead. But such back-and-forth usually takes place out of the public eye. This outward-facing kerfuffle, caused by an exaggeration in a press release, took even epidemiologists by surprise.

“It led to a lot of confusion, even among scientists,” Smith said. “It took me a full day to figure out what happened.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci called it “an unforced error.”

But there is no room for such error when it comes to communicating information about the effectiveness of vaccines, and the urgent need for as many people to be vaccinated as possible. There is already a crisis of confidence that has lead to troubling vaccine hesitancy in states like Texas, Louisiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere. As premature reopening plans and variant strains of the virus have numbers again soaring, this is no time to lose ground.

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Vaccine makers and US officials need to be as careful and meticulous in their public messaging as they are in ensuring a vaccine’s safety. Companies must resist any urge to paint a rosier-than-real picture of effectiveness data, and regulators need to think carefully about the public battles they choose. Let’s hope this is the last cautionary tale.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.