COVID-19 SPECIAL: Commentary

On Covid-19 data, experts may sometimes differ

For instance, they disagree on the rush to produce a vaccine, dangers of overseas travel

Even experts may disagree.

Generally, not on major issues, but on interpreting the facts or their assessment of situations.

They also see things very differently from the lay public.

This was what struck me the most during The Straits Times Covid-19 webinar yesterday.

Take vaccines, for example. The whole world is waiting for a viable vaccine so it can protect people and life can return to normal.

The experts say no, it's not a magic bullet. Staying protected requires a combination of a good vaccine, good treatment that reduces severity of the illness, and good social behaviour so fewer people get infected.

They also agree that there isn't going to be a commercially available vaccine any time this year.

Where they politely differ from one another is whether this rush for a vaccine is a good thing.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, worries that the first commercially available vaccine may not be the best.

But because it is the first, everyone will rush to get it, even if it is "sub-optimal", for the lack of an alternative. Prof Teo fears that this might compromise the development of better vaccines.

Professor Ooi Eng Eong, deputy director of Duke-NUS Medical School's emerging infectious diseases programme, gave an assurance that there is no fear of that. The pandemic is so big and affects so many countries and people that there is potential for several vaccines to be produced and marketed, he said. So having one on the market will not stop others from completing their development.

 
 
 
 

Professor Dale Fisher, a senior infectious diseases expert at the National University Hospital, said a lot of the vaccine hype is by companies concerned about their bottom lines.

He worries about the risk inherent in the rush to get a vaccine out early, as about 130 vaccines in the pipeline vie for market share. Blowing their trumpet at every step helps with the companies' share prices and in getting funding for their work.

But that does not mean the vaccine will work well.

"This is what concerns me a lot. That there'll be a demand to shorten the phase three trials and instead of doing it on 30,000 people, you do it on 2,000 people, rush it through and start producing it. This would be a risk, I would think," said Prof Fisher, who also chairs the World Health Organisation's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network steering committee.

Prof Ooi, who is leading the development of a Covid-19 vaccine by Duke-NUS Medical School and American medicine company Arcturus Therapeutics, disagrees.

Yes, the development time for a new vaccine has been shortened from more than a decade to just over a year.

But researchers now "understand a lot more about the side effects of vaccines today than we did in the past, and a lot of this you can now measure by looking at genes, by looking at how you respond to vaccines, and that pretty much predicts its safety", he said.

He added: "There are a lot of molecular tools now that weren't available to us even five years ago that we can now use to evaluate how safe vaccines could be."

Prof Teo and Prof Fisher also differed on the dangers of overseas travel, though both said this is not going to resume any time soon.

Said Prof Teo: "When we go out, we end up being exposed to many different factors that are beyond our control, and it could happen on the plane, it could happen when I'm at the hotel, or it could be at the local tourist attractions.

 
 
 

"So even if we do have an arrangement with a partnering country, perhaps New Zealand, that is controlling the situation very well, we have seen how quickly the situation can change."

But Prof Fisher said it need not be that way if countries are good at finding cases and quarantining them: "We would be comfortable with China because as soon as they get a case, they're very, very kiasu.

"They will lock down the whole area, swab everyone within a radius. We could be comfortable that China is not going to send any (infected person) to Singapore."

So, what the webinar showed was that even experts interpret the same facts differently. Not surprising then, that countries are finding it so tough to deal with the pandemic.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2020, with the headline 'On Covid-19 data, experts may sometimes differ'. Print Edition | Subscribe