Promising results from Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccines have raised hopes that an end to the pandemic may be in sight. But distribution issues aside, a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology out last week is raising further concerns about those vaccines’ effectiveness.
After initial human trials, Moderna reported its vaccine to be 94 percent effective in preventing coronavirus transmission, while Pfizer’s was 95 percent effective and AstraZeneca’s 90 percent. But these vaccines, along with many others still in development, share a potential weakness, MIT researchers report. Researchers used artificial intelligence and machine learning to examine a vaccine similar to these big developers’, and found that while less than 0.5 percent of white trial participants didn’t respond strongly to the vaccine, nearly 10 percent of Asian participants didn’t. This could mean “people of Black or Asian ancestry could have a slightly increased risk of vaccine ineffectiveness,” the study’s senior author David Gifford said in an article accompanying the study.
A lack of diversity in the vaccine trial pools may have led developers to calibrate the vaccine to a specific version of human genes — white people’s genes in particular. But MIT researchers did offer a potential solution: “adding a small number of additional COVID-19 peptides” — strings of amino acids that make up proteins, which in turn make up a coronavirus — “to a given dose of the vaccine,” MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence lab writes.
“The study’s results highlight longstanding trends in health care” and clinical trials, Health IT Analytics notes. Minority groups are often underrepresented in trials, making it less certain how effective vaccines and drugs will be for them and potentially leading to the formulation of vaccines that are tailored for white people. That’s especially troubling amid the coronavirus pandemic, as Black and brown people have disproportionately been hospitalized with and died of the virus.