Following the science: have Covid vaccines boosted public confidence in STEM?

The pandemic has put the life sciences sector at the very top of the news agenda. With vaccine rollouts developed in record time, how has this changed public perceptions of the work that scientists do?

Covid 19 vaccine vials being filled in a lab

Three years ago your average member of the public would have been blissfully unaware of the impact that STEM specialists have in modelling the spread of infectious diseases and their role in the rigorous processes behind the development of vaccine programmes. But the emergence of Covid-19 has changed everything.

The rapid roll-out of Covid vaccines has driven a “sea change” in attitudes towards the STEM community, says WHO spokesperson Dr Margaret Harris, who, like many scientists, has become a familiar face commenting on the race to find a vaccine during the pandemic.

“Confidence has increased enormously,” says Dr Harris, and the benefits spread far wider than life sciences alone. “[It’s] not just straight science but technology, the application of engineering and mathematics are represented by what has been achieved at that speed.”

Part of the shift is that science has gone from the “nerdy backroom” to something people talk about every day. “People are talking about things like the R number, reproduction factor… all sorts of terms and concepts that are now almost pub discussions,” says Dr Harris. “You couldn't evaluate the pandemic without the statistical understanding and what was happening in test tubes.”

“It’s been a long time since a mathematician was sexy.”

In addition, the pandemic also elevated public perceptions of the people behind the science. “Mathematicians, particularly those data visualisation experts, have become darlings of social media,” says Dr Harris. “It’s been a long time since a mathematician was sexy.”

The race for public trust

But while the understanding around the development of vaccines has undoubtedly increased, discussions on social media have often questioned the speed of the roll-out, specifically around whether vaccines produced at such a rate can be trusted.

Countering these arguments has been a challenge for the World Health Organisation. Dr Harris, a media spokesperson for WHO with a PhD in Clinical Epidemiology and Community Medicine, has worked hard to shift the narrative.

“Those questions were out there even before we had the vaccines,” she says. “The mRNA vaccines were ready to be tested within a few weeks of knowing the coronavirus’s genetic sequence … which is extraordinarily quick.”

“Doing initial testing and then the Phase 3 testing usually does take years,” she says. “I’ve countered scepticism by explaining that, yes, often it is years and years and years from having an antigen to producing it in quantities where you can test it in humans safely. In this instance, regulatory procedures and the scale-up worked in parallel. No corners were cut.”

“Traditionally, most research has been done on healthy white males, but that hasn’t been the case during this pandemic"

The speed of the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out contrasts with the development of other vaccines, such as those for HIV, given that AIDs also affects the global population. “Gay men were a vocal minority that was very able and intellectually powerful and drove a lot of the demand that something be done,” said Dr Harris. However, she added that, in this case, “the HIV epidemic didn't go into the general population in countries that tend to be the ‘owners’ of science and technology,” said Dr Harris.

The Covid pandemic has provided a chance to address vaccine hesitancy in BAME communities and views that STEM research focuses too much on white males. “Traditionally, most research has been done on healthy white males, but that hasn’t been the case during this pandemic. There has been a strong effort to test widely around the country and worldwide.

“We've got trials going on called the Solidarity trials [for Covid-19 treatments], and we focused on having those in countries like the Philippines, Columbia, Mali,” said Harris.

Pregnant pause: delays in testing pregnant women

Rolling out vaccines for pregnant women has been challenging, Dr Harris notes. “You get into some difficulties ethically. Certainly, companies and scientists and ethics committees are uncomfortable testing pregnant women. You have an untested drug that has had human safety testing, but you don't know the effect on the foetus.”

Phase three testing, for example, is conducted entirely on a non-pregnant population. “That's problematic when you've got a virus like this, which we know can cause more severe outcomes in pregnant women and greater foetal loss in women with Covid-19”.

The same, she said, is true of previous vaccines, most notably for Ebola, which scientists were unable to test on a pregnant population, but which proved to have “terrible outcomes” for women who got Ebola, for both mother and baby.

“So there was this question of ‘which way do we go? When do we get brave and give the gift of the vaccine to pregnant women?’ The good news is we now can.”

In the case of Covid, companies have overcome these challenges with good population studies following at-risk groups. “People get pregnant and get vaccinated because they didn’t know they were pregnant. If you follow enough of your population, you will have large numbers that will let you know what happened,” explained Dr Harris.

Similarly, there weren’t widespread Covid vaccinations among children with Covid, partly because they were largely asymptomatic. Still, Dr Harris says Pfizer and Moderna now have enough evidence to convince policymakers that it is safe to vaccinate those over the age of five and twelve, respectively.

As we emerge from the pandemic one thing is true: increased confidence in science has changed public perceptions of how STEM specialists, in general, contribute to society. But Dr Harris is well aware of the need for transparency and to manage expectations. We “need to keep the conversation going,” she says. “With every new vaccine, there may be untoward consequences, unexpected consequences, and you really must be vigilant about safety and communication.”

“Ensuring that the profile of your population is as broad as possible is critical. Even within one country, you will have vastly different people genetically. You need to test among as wide a population as possible, or otherwise, when you roll it out, you will have subgroups who may have problems with it, and you will have missed them.”

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