Rutgers Medical discusses mounting concerns surrounding vaccinations at East Orange meeting

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EAST ORANGE, NJ — East Orange Mayor Ted Green hosted a March 10 town hall meeting with East Orange Health Officer Victor Kuteyi, East Orange Police Chief Phyllis Bindi and Dr. Shobha Swaminathan, associate professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, to discuss the clinical trials of the COVID-19 vaccines and to address growing concerns regarding vaccines being created too quickly.

“I think people are raising that question because a year ago I had to have this conversation with my family,” Swaminathan said. “Science and technology have evolved over time significantly. In order to get a vaccine, you had to figure out what is the best way to develop antibodies, and can we produce the vaccine in a fast enough time, from a laboratory perspective, and what it would take, in a clinical trial, to show that it’s been effective.

“So, for this particular virus, early on in January, investigators were able to pinpoint the part of the virus that was critical in infecting human beings, and it was shown that people who have recovered from that infection had high antibodies, so we knew what we had to do,” she continued. “By the end of January, they developed a new sequence for the virus completely, so that they knew what the virus looks like, (which led to) scheduling the clinical trial. People feel like most clinical trials will take years and years. One of the reasons that happens is usually clinical trials can go from 3,000 to 4,000 people, and that takes about two to three years or longer to prove that it was effective because it will take a certain number of cases comparing those who’ve gotten the vaccine and those who did not get the vaccine.”

But, due to the pandemic, the many cases needed to study were available much more quickly. Swaminathan discussed how effective the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were during initial testing.

“Both Moderna and Pfizer, and then Johnson & Johnson, were so effective,” Swaminathan said. “The vaccine was 95-percent effective. They were so effective at that point, it became unethical to withhold something that was so effective from people that were dying from COVID.”

Green brought up a growing trend of households in which some family members want to get vaccinated and others do not. Green also broached the topic of young people getting vaccinated.

According to Swaminathan, she has not yet seen problems from this trend of people opting out of receiving the vaccine.

“We’re still at the point where demand is far outweighing the supply,” Swaminathan said. “So, we still have a lot more people who want to get the vaccine, compared to those who don’t want to. Plus, most families with young adults aren’t eligible to get vaccinated. The only people who are able to get vaccinated right now are senior citizens, nursing homes residents, resident and health care centers, people with underlying health conditions, front-line worker positions, and, most recently, teachers, etc.

“We still have so many people who are not eligible to get the vaccine, and we still don’t have enough information on that,” she continued. “That being said, your unit is only as strong as your weakest link. For those on the fence, if you’re still unsure, I would urge you to speak with physicians and other people who’ve been involved in this work and who actually know about why the vaccine is safe and effective. Then you can make a better, educated decision.”

Swaminathan also urged community leaders to speak out about the importance of large-scale vaccination.

“I think people will feel a lot more reassured by people in their community that they trust, who will also start speaking about this in a positive aspect, because that’s the only way we can overcome this pandemic,” she said. “It’s by working together.”