The Current

Without data, press releases of COVID-19 vaccine findings create 'false impression' of progress: expert

Former Harvard professor William Haseltine says publishing early results of COVID-19 research could be damaging if not properly peer reviewed.

Former Harvard prof. critical of early data released by Moderna Inc. vaccine trial

In March, a volunteer receives a shot in the clinical trial of Moderna Inc.'s potential vaccine for COVID-19, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

Read story transcript

The urgency to find a COVID-19 vaccine means some scientists are "publishing by press release" and omitting the data to support their findings, according to former Harvard Medical professor and groundbreaking researcher William Haseltine.

"It's very much the same as if the CFO of a publicly traded company were to say 'I've had great results this year, but I'm not going to show you my books,'" said Haseltine, founder of Harvard's cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments.

"It's abnormal, and it can create a false impression in the public's mind about progress that may or may not exist — it's a bad practice," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Last week, U.S. company Moderna Inc. announced that early data showed its vaccine trial produced protective antibodies in 8 of 45 subjects. The findings came from phase 1 of the study, and had not been peer reviewed.

Haseltine referred to the announcement as "publishing by press release," where researchers release results "before the rest of the scientific community can judge the validity of those claims, by reading a detailed account of what was done."

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"Moderna is an egregious example of this, but there are many more now that are following," he said.

He said the practice "serves no public benefit," but worries the publicity generated may encourage other teams to issue similar releases — without data to support their findings.

"We have a special responsibility right now, the medical and scientific community and those developing vaccines, to be transparent," he said.

"Transparent on everything we do because it's so important to the public. We're making big decisions about our personal lives, our economic life, based on the hope that there'll be a vaccine."

The Current contacted Moderna about the criticism of their announcement, but did not receive a response.

Ultimately, researchers can 'get away with' publishing results without data, said author and philosopher Françoise Baylis. (Françoise Baylis)

Philosopher Françoise Baylis said that people within the scientific community may frown on these early releases, but overall "the behaviour is rewarded."

"It's rewarded either through something like, you know, increased stock, easier access to grants funding, post-docs who are happy to come, media coverage — and all of this creates this great aura of success," said Baylis, a University Research Professor at Dalhousie University.

"Ultimately, you can get away with it," she told Galloway.

The news from Moderna Inc. lifted its shares by 20 per cent, though it later fell 1.6 per cent in extended trading after the company said it plans to sell $1.25 billion US in common stock to raise money for vaccine development and manufacturing.

The share price fell again Wednesday, amid reports that top executives at the company have sold more than $89 million US of stock this year.

Can clear virus without drugs: Haseltine

Hasletine said it's possible to "completely clear a city and a country [of COVID-19] without a drug and without a vaccine" with physical distancing and contact tracing measures.

He pointed to places like New Zealand that have "stopped the virus in its tracks" simply through behaviour.

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He said the approach requires strict adherence to physical distancing rules, as well as contact tracing for anyone showing symptoms and mandatory, controlled two-week isolation for anyone exposed.

"It's within human capacity to do that," he said.

With that option available, Hasletine said there was a "harmful aspect" to "pinning our future and our children's future and our economic future" on hopes for a vaccine.

"I'm not saying we won't have a vaccine, we might, but we don't know that," he told Galloway.

"What we do know is how to contain this infection through human behaviour. And it's a sad thing for me to witness that not all countries are doing that."

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from Thomson Reuters. Produced by Howard Goldental.

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