Oxford’s Vaccine Trial Paused but Not Canceled

Many of us groaned at hearing the news that Oxford Univ. has had to pause their vaccine trial this week. We want a vaccine, and we want it soon. Obviously, we don’t want to jump the gun. We want all of the phases of the trials completed, and we want to know that it is safe and fully vetted. If it isn’t proven to be safe and effective, there is no point in putting it on the market. We don’t want a vaccine that could make us sick.

The news that the study has had to pause feels like another blow, in a year where the hits don’t stop coming! The trial is using a vaccine developed by the university and AstraZeneca. It has been put on hold as one participant has been diagnosed with transverse myelitis. This inflammatory syndrome impacts the spinal cord and may be caused by a viral infection. The researchers don’t know if it was caused by COVID-19. So, they have stopped all their research while examining whether the infection is linked to the vaccine.

It’s important to stress that needing to pause for sudden illnesses is isn’t uncommon in phase three testing of a vaccine. “In large trials,” said an Oxford Univ. spokesperson, “illnesses will happen by chance but must be independently reviewed to check this carefully.”

The study has more than 8,000 participants. Very few — if any — vaccine studies in history have been watched on an international stage how these COVID-19 vaccine studies have been. So, while pausing a study is common, and a known step for scientists, to the public, it can seem scary and like it’s a death knell for the vaccine. It’s a normal setback. There’s no need to panic or write off the vaccine as a failure.

This setback doesn’t necessarily mean that the vaccine or the testing will be scrapped; it could be that the infection is unrelated. It’s actually a relief to see how seriously the researchers are: they are pausing the whole study over one person’s illness. That’s good — it shows they aren’t playing it fast and loose. But, it is a distressing delay for everyone who is waiting with bated breath for the results.   

Vaccine experts stress that the review of the illness will determine the fate of the study. If the vaccine is found to be the cause of the illness, it could be the “definitive blow.” The vaccine may never reach the market.  Otherwise, the study may resume in “a matter of weeks.”

Just one single person being ill with something can put a pause on the whole study. And we should find this setback comforting, even if it is exasperating when we’re all eager for the vaccine. It underscores the level of rigor and safety that goes into the study.
September 11, 2020
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