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How the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists helped kill off our COVID candidate

Insights

There weren’t major side effects, but the risk of Queensland’s coronavirus vaccine candidate undermining public confidence in the health system was too much, writes Sean Parnell.

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University of Queensland researchers and their partners at CSL knew what they were dealing with. They informed clinical trial participants of the loose link between their vaccine design and HIV, and kept government officials advised of the developments and data in recent months. Everything was safe, and looking promising, but they were still proceeding with haste, not to mention the pressure of trying to bring a global pandemic to an end.

This vaccine candidate was intended to help Australia, and be part of the overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has shaken the world and exposed the entrenched cynicism of a minority of people towards science and public health. It was intended to help restore order and show what smart people can do.

But, in the end, the timing, and implications, of UQ and CSL pushing ahead with vaccine development became clear. It wasn’t that other vaccine candidates were necessarily better, rather that the external complications of rolling out the Australian vaccine would have undermined the health system in the current environment. The Australian vaccine still could have protected people from COVID-19, but it would also have been used by anti-vaxxers, sceptics and conspiracy theorists to warn against such public health measures – and with HIV as ammunition.

The rate of HIV in Australia is low, the numbers are declining in some groups, fewer than one million tests are undertaken each year, and precautions and treatments are improving. Those who received this vaccine candidate were only showing false positives for HIV, not an actual infection, but no-one had been able to find a way to mitigate the impact.

Even today, HIV is the bogeyman of infectious disease. Combined with public ignorance around vaccine development, it would have made for a powerful cocktail of crazy in an internet-fuelled misinformation campaign that is already claiming lives.

The UQ/CSL team made the right decision. Devastated they may be, the researchers today implored the public – and government funders – not to give up on Australian research and development. That they could come so far, so fast, and with such good results, is still an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Yet, in the coming days, how their news is relayed and received will prove crucial. The UQ/CSL team may have sought to protect the health system, but the fight for science and public health continues, and it remains to be seen whether this development is used for information or misinformation. There are more than reputations at stake.

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