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NIH director speaks to AHCJ Summit on Infectious Diseases Date: 11/20/20

While describing the efforts of the National Institutes of Health and its partnerships with other agencies and pharmaceutical companies, NIH Director Francis Collins described the endeavor as "the most amazing outpouring of scientific capabilities, determination, talent that I've ever seen in my 27 years at NIH."

During a keynote speech at AHCJ's Journalism Summit on Infectious Disease on Nov. 18, Collins said "The news [about recently announced vaccine trials] is extremely good. Both of these involving trials of 30,000 or more participants have been able to show that the messenger RNA-based vaccine strategy has resulted in over 90% efficacy for both of these and what appears to be a very reasonable safety record as well."

He predicted that "in December, something like 20 million people will be able to be immunized with one or the other of these vaccines in the United States …"

During his half-hour interview with AHCJ board member and independent journalist Maryn McKenna, broadcast live to attendees, Collins detailed some of the steps that the NIH, Food and Drug Administration and vaccine manufacturers have taken to ensure that COVID vaccines will be safe, effective, and available in sufficient numbers to inoculate most Americans. At the same time, he warned that no vaccine is 100% effective.

In response to a question from McKenna, Collins outlined what he thinks journalists should emphasize when reporting on these developments.

Francis Collins

“First of all, I don’t in any way want to put down the concerns that people have had about how this process is going,” Collins said. “It doesn’t help to just say to people, ‘Oh, you’re just being silly about this.’ People have legitimate concerns about whether this process is being done right.”

He noted the concern by some that the developmental process was rushed for political reasons and not driven by science, but he countered that, in his view, the process has been driven entirely by science. “I can promise you that,” he said.

The interview, which featured questions submitted in advance from AHCJ members, was followed by a live Q&A session with Hilary Marston, M.D., medical officer and policy adviser for pandemic preparedness at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She dove into more of the questions about science and what she says is a "robust evaluation" that the vaccines will undergo.

Marston also discussed the rollout of vaccines to vulnerable populations and the challenges of vaccine storage.

She warned that the public should not expect the vaccines to end the COVID-19 pandemic quickly. “It is imperative that we all understand that for the foreseeable future, we are looking at a combination COVID-prevention situation, and that is one where we do not put everything on vaccines,” she said.

Videos of both sessions are now available to the public. Other speakers' presentations and videos also are available.