Early approval of a COVID-19 vaccine could stymie the hunt for better ones

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The United States, China, and other countries are ramping up production of experimental COVID-19 vaccines—a Beijing production line for one is shown here—but a limited supply of the first one with proven efficacy will likely still complicate the ethics of testing the other candidates.

WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

By Jon CohenOct. 14, 2020 , 7:30 PM

Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Success in the push to find a COVID-19 vaccine at record-breaking speed could hand the world a new problem. The first vaccine to cross the finish line might be only marginally effective, yet it could become the enemy of the good–or even the great—candidates in the wings by disrupting ongoing studies.

In all likelihood, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or other regulators will issue the first COVID-19 vaccine approval or emergency use authorization (EUA) for one vaccine while many other candidates have clinical trials still underway or in the planning. At that point ongoing studies of any vaccine—including that first one—could become unethical, because half the study participants are getting a placebo, and now a vaccine with established efficacy will be available. “It’s …

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