Story at a glance

  • Tom Frieden, who headed the CDC from 2009 to 2017, spoke with CNBC about recent reports of pauses in clinical trials being conducted by leading pharmaceutical companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Eli Lilly.
  • He also said that public health measures including masks and social distancing are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Breaking news about the pauses of high-profile clinical trials for potential COVID-19 treatments developed by drug manufacturers Johnson & Johnson and Eli Lilly have cast shadows of doubt on the potential for a COVID-19 vaccine.

From the perspective of former U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Tom Frieden, however, the pauses aren’t ominous signs.

Frieden, who served as head of the public health agency from 2009 to 2017, told CNBC reporters that pauses are common in drug trials and indicate pharmaceutical manufacturers are being cautious and diligent in developing a safe vaccine before submitting it for approval.


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“Science moves slowly,” explains Frieden. “Science doesn’t respond to spin. It takes time.”

In fact, these pauses are fairly commonplace during large-scale clinical trials. 

“It’s kind of paradoxical, but actually reassuring because we expect to see signals that may not indicate a problem and we expect to see companies stopping so they can look carefully,” he says. “So it gives reassurance that we are not cutting corners on safety.”

As trust in a future vaccine is low among the American public, with only a little above half of respondents saying they would get a low-cost vaccine if one became available, Frieden acknowledges the mass reticence — saying that he would only take a vaccine after reviewing the data.

“I think as time goes on, we’ll learn more,” he says. “The first [vaccine] past the post is not likely to be the best vaccine; we’re going to need a way to try to determine which vaccines are better for which people, and we do have hope that we’re going to have a safe and effective vaccine.”

Even a successful vaccine won’t bring the pandemic to a sudden stop, says Freiden. While a vaccine is a solid step in cultivating immunity, people will still need to adjust their lives to mitigate risk, and health authorities will still need to monitor outbreaks and clusters of infections.

“A vaccine is not going to bring a fairytale ending to this pandemic,” he says, adding that it also won’t eradicate COVID-19 completely. Like many other public health experts, Friedan notes that tactics like hand washing and masks can make a huge impact.

“For the next foreseeable future masks are in and handshakes are out,” he says.


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Published on Oct 14, 2020