Colgate University Alumni Doctors and Ethicists Weigh in on COVID-19 Vaccine Development

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As the FDA began approving vaccines for widespread use in the United States, the Colgate Health and Wellness and STEM professional networks convened medical and legal professionals from the University community for a panel discussion on “The Search for a Treatment: A Conversation About COVID-19.”

Associate Professor of Biology Geoff Holm, a virologist and the co-chair of the Task Force for Reopening Colgate, moderated the Dec. 9 discussion. Panelists included Najat Khan ’06, chief data science officer at Johnson & Johnson; Cheryl Wahl ’91, SVP/chief ethics and compliance officer for MetroHealth; Tim Mastro ’75, chief science officer for FHI 360; and David Roberts ’75, CEO of North Shore Medical Center in Salem, Mass.

Roberts described the struggles of the initial spike in March, given the lack of PPE and knowledge as to how to prepare. Because communities of color are statistically more vulnerable to COVID-19, his inner-city hospital has been overrun throughout the pandemic. The exhaustion of his staff is making the second wave extremely difficult to navigate as well. 

“This second surge is the result of people getting lazy about doing the things that matter, and that is infuriating to those of us who work in healthcare,” he said.

Wahl, who works with underprivileged communities, seconded the point. In March, agency nurses from around the country helped relieve hospital staff in the Northeast, but those nurses are being deployed across the country as case volumes expand everywhere. 

“We had an overabundance of community support early on. People were putting signs in their yards, and we had a whole logistics team working on distributing various donations to the hospital — all of that has stopped,” Wahl said. “So much of the administration’s time is spent working on the resilience of the staff. People are burned out.”

Regardless of the bumpy landscape, the pace of vaccine development has been swift, according to Mastro, whose team is coordinating vaccine trials domestically and preparing for global vaccination programs. He noted the impressive speed with which COVID-19 vaccines are being developed. When the HIV epidemic emerged in 1981, it took two years to discover the virus and another two to get an antibody test — processes that took days this time around.

“For the last 25 years [FHI 360 has] been the operations center for Dr. Fauci’s HIV prevention trials network. The capacity that we’ve built, the ability to run large clinical trials all over the world, was immediately seized upon in March and geared toward COVID,” Mastro said. “We’re supporting sites that are doing clinical trials of the AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines as well as doing studies of Regeneron monoclonal antibodies. The pace is just extraordinary.”

Speed and safety can coexist, because “the platform that we are using is something we have used and invested in for years… We developed it for H1N1, Zika, etc.,” Khan said. “All that hard work is what gets us here.”

In the Q&A portion of the event, panelists discussed a post-vaccine world, noting that the vaccine will not facilitate an immediate return to normalcy and that practices such as mask wearing should continue. The durability of the vaccine is continuing to be tested. “We have to be realistic,” Khan said.

“The light is at the end of the tunnel because of some of the people on this call,” Roberts said. “If we can just get through the next 10 or 12 weeks… But I [would] take every opportunity to say stay home for Christmas. We cannot take another patient at our hospital.”