No shortcuts for COVID vaccine approval, says Dr Norman Swan

Friday, 12 March 2021

Australia’s leading health reporter and broadcaster Dr Norman Swan wants people with diabetes to know the COVID-19 vaccine hasn’t been developed overnight, nor have corners been cut in the safety approval process.

No unexpected or major safety issues

“Three hundred million people have been vaccinated at least with the first dose, many of whom have type 2 diabetes, and there have been no unexpected or major safety issues, apart from rare allergic reactions to the mRNA vaccines,” Dr Swan said when he visited our offices to address staff about COVID-19 and the importance of getting as many Australians possible vaccinated.

“COVID-19 will be with us forever, just like measles. It will be very hard to eliminate.”

Taking the threat out of COVID-19

Dr Swan said the key challenge now is to turn COVID-19 into a virus that we can live with easily, such as the common cold, so we don’t have to worry about it on a day to day basis.

“When experts and politicians extoll the unprecedented speed at which vaccines have been developed they actually unsettle people. They say to themselves ‘How can it possibly be safe if it’s been done so quickly?’

Get the story right

“So let’s get the story right,” he said.

Dr Swan said people were mistaken if they think the vaccines were developed within one year.

“A few years ago, an organisation called CEPI, or the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, gathered philanthropic money and hosted a challenge for researchers to come up with a technology platform which, if a new virus were to hit humankind, they could deliver a vaccine in 16 weeks.”

The groundwork had been done

Five technology platforms won that competition.

Dr Swan said when Professor Eddie Holmes at the University of Sydney released the full genome from China last January, it only took a few weeks for these vaccine platforms to be adapted for the coronavirus.

“That’s not a rush. That’s what the vaccine platforms were designed to do: come up with a vaccine within 16 weeks and they did, some even sooner.”

Successful Phase III trials

Dr Swan said drugs and vaccines are approved after randomised Phase III clinical trials, which all of the COVID-19 vaccines have undergone.

In Phase III, the vaccine is given to thousands of people and tested for efficacy and safety.

“Normally it takes years to recruit 40,000 people for a vaccine trial but because there were so many people with COVID-19 they were able to recruit incredibly quickly. Because there was so much virus around it did not take long to see if there was protection.”

More data used in approval of COVID vaccines

Dr Swan wants people with diabetes to know the vaccines have been approved on the same data as any type 2 diabetes drug or any vaccine.

“In fact, there are more data available because there are 300 million people who’ve had the vaccine since the trials. For many of them, such as in countries like Israel, they’ve been recorded electronically and their side effects monitored as well.

“That is unprecedented to have vaccines approved with so much real world data.”

All protect against severe illness

Dr Swan said while it’s true we don’t know the long-term side effects, we never know that with new drugs either. With vaccines it’s very unusual for long term effects to appear.

“It’s a vaccine that goes into the body, stimulates the immune system and disappears, just leaving behind the immune memory of the spike protein of the virus.”

Dr Swan said the currently approved vaccines all protected against severe disease at the moment, regardless of variants.

“However, these variants mean we’ll probably get boosters in the next 12 months.”

Opening the borders

Dr Swan urged people to know the facts about the COVID-19 vaccines.

“There’s lots of misinformation out there but this virus will be with us for a long time to come,” he said.

“We are going to have to live with it, and we are at some point going to have to open the borders. Our ability to open our borders will depend on getting 70 to 80 percent of people within the state immunised, particularly our most vulnerable.

“People with diabetes are among the most vulnerable.”

Dr Norman Swan

Dr Swan is co-founder of Tonic Media Network, Australia’s largest health and wellbeing media network. Find out more at:

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