Biotech pioneer calls for transparency in coronavirus vaccine development

Biotech pioneer William Haseltine.
By Michael R. Malone

Biotech pioneer William Haseltine.

Biotech pioneer calls for transparency in coronavirus vaccine development

By Michael R. Malone
Miami Herbert Business School taps into the expertise of renowned virologist William Haseltine for insight on COVID-19.

As a scientist and businessman, William Haseltine has created 10 different companies that have produced a range of products approved by the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies, including medicines that help combat diseases such as cancer, lupus, diabetes, and AIDS, as well as agents that provide protection against bioterrorism with Anthrax, among others.

Fifteen years ago, he founded ACCESS Health International, a nonprofit think tank and foundation that aims to expand access to health care for all. Through the foundation’s global offices, Haseltine has developed relationships with government officials in a range of nations—China, India, Japan, and others—that have advanced collaborative health care solutions.

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Haseltine has riveted his attention on the virus, using his expertise and collaborative network to address the immense challenges involved in generating an effective vaccine.

He talked about those efforts in a virtual conversation with University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School leaders on June 10 as part of the Southern Glazer’s Distinguished Leaders Lecture Series.

“Six months ago, we had one person infected with the COVID-19 virus. Today we have seven million people infected globally and nearly 20,000 new cases every day in the U.S.,” Haseltine pointed out. “What’s going to happen? It’s not predictable, and any prediction you make doesn’t look so good.”

President Julio Frenk welcomed Haseltine as “a renowned innovator and gifted scientist who has become a prolific commentator who offers clear-headed commentary” regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Karoline Mortensen, professor in health management policy, moderated the webinar together with Dean John A. Quelch. She asked Haseltine about his new book, a family guide for COVID-19, and for recommendations on consumer behavior in the absence of a vaccine.

He responded by offering two radically different government responses to the virus: China, which imposed tight restrictions and has now controlled the spread, and Sweden, which set almost no controls and now has the highest rate of deaths-per-capita in the world.

The United States, he pointed out, followed a partial model in regional fashion, shutting down some places tightly, like New York, while allowing other states to set the loosest of restrictions.

“And now we have 20,000 new cases—that’s what happens when you don’t close up tight,” he said, adding that “some of those are going to die, and many of those who don’t die are going to be severely injured for the rest of their lives—fibrosis lungs, hearts that don’t function well, lost kidneys, brains that suffered strokes, and more.

“We’re not counting those people, we only count the dead,” he said. “What is the price we’re going to be paying?”

Haseltine shared his childhood experience growing up during the polio epidemic, prior to the development of a vaccine, as a reference for the present COVID-19 pandemic.

“I remember the tangible fear,” he said. “We were afraid, and we didn’t know exactly what we were afraid of.”   

In his first laboratory job, he was assigned to work in the same lab where John Franklin Enders had isolated the poliomyelitis virus, a discovery that led to the vaccine.

“I decided then that I was going to learn a lot about polio,” he added. He learned that the virus is much like a cold virus, and out of every 200 people it infects, one gets paralyzed, and out of every 2,000 people, one dies.

“That sounds very familiar to COVID-19,” he said, noting that a marked difference between the two is that once you get infected with polio, you never get infected again.

“There’s a difference with this disease. They’re doing experiments that show that if you infect a human being with a cold coronavirus, you can come back a year later and reinfect them—that means this virus has a different strategy,” he said.

He said that there are “at least 20 tricks we know of now, and we’re still counting,” that this virus uses to mess with our immune system.

“Each virus has its own strategy, and this one is a very tricky one, halfway between polio and HIV in terms of certainty for finding a vaccine that’s going to solve our problem,” he said.

According to Haseltine, each person’s response to reengaging their lifestyle is tempered by their own individual experience. In his own case, he explained that the previous day he entered his New York apartment building just as a COVID-19 fatality was being wheeled out on a stretcher.

“That was a reminder that it ain’t over in New York either, so I’m worried,” he said.

Companies working on developing a vaccine for COVID-19, Haseltine said, should share information on all aspects of development.

“It’s transparency I’m calling for,” he said. “We need to know the regulations of what the Food and Drug Administration will require for safety. We’re the ones at risk, and we should know how our money is being spent and know what the plans are in some detail.

“The transparency isn’t just for Moderna,” Haseltine said, referring to a biotech firm he has criticized for not providing data on its work. “We need to tear away the cloak of opacity around this massive effort."