Dr. Heidi Larson, Director, Vaccine Confidence Project
On Wednesday, September 30, Rabin Martin hosted a conversation with global health luminaries Dr. Heidi Larson, Director, Vaccine Confidence Project, and Dr. Peter Piot, Director, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moderated by Rabin Martin CEO Dr. Jeffrey L. Sturchio, the discussion focused on lessons learned from the past nine months and predictions on what lies ahead.
Beginning with the sobering fact that the global death toll from COVID-19 exceeded one million people earlier this week, Dr. Sturchio asked how we could have prevented such loss of life. Dr. Piot underscored the importance of 1) strong leadership at the national and community level; 2) strong public health systems, noting that many countries lack adequate prevention, detection, and response capacity; and 3) early action – “the time to set up a fire brigade is not when your house is on fire.”
Taking a long-term view, Dr. Larson emphasized the need to manage the public’s expectations about the response to the pandemic, especially since a vaccine will only be part of the solution. “Vaccines are not the holy grail,” she cautioned, adding that it is important to continue communicating that hand washing, wearing masks, and social distancing will remain critical for effective containment.
Transparency and engendering trust were consistent strategies suggested to address vaccine hesitancy. Both speakers discussed the vital need to “listen to people, talk to people, and involve them to generate trust.” Dr. Larson emphasized that because we are living in a state of “hyperuncertainty,” uncovering the real reasons behind concerns about a potential vaccine will be key for vaccine uptake. Myriad factors, including experience with and perceptions of healthcare providers, political systems, industry, and others, influence “trust dynamics” and an individual’s willingness to accept a vaccine. Based on his own experience fighting COVID-19, Dr. Piot noted the need to focus on patients and their families to build trust and understand their fears.
Dr. Larson also urged better communication about COVID-19 given that the public is constantly weighing the risks of the disease with the benefits of a vaccine. Likewise, Dr. Piot stated that decisions must be informed by science, praising CEOs from pharmaceutical companies for pledging to follow the science and “not accept any shortcuts” in R&D for COVID-19 vaccines. However, he also acknowledged that science doesn’t hold the answer to everything because the disease is so new. Honesty is essential, he said: “When we get it wrong, we need to admit it.”
Dr. Peter Piot, Director, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
The session closed on a note of cautious optimism, with Dr. Piot sharing his expectation that many will be vaccinated a year from now. Dr. Larson ended by commenting on the huge opportunity for institutions to build trust with the public over the coming months through consistent, coherent, and transparent public health messages. Both agreed that preparing for what comes next will be paramount: “We need to build the systems to deal with the current crisis and be better prepared for the next one. This is our collective responsibility,” said Dr. Piot