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February 17, 2021

Dr. Bruce Gellin on COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts

By Liddy Kasraian (C’21)

On February 9, 2021, the School of Foreign Service’s Conversations in Global Health course welcomed Dr. Bruce Gellin to discuss vaccines and the current COVID-19 vaccination efforts. Dr. Gellin is currently president of Global Immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute. Previously, he worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, during which time he helped develop the National Vaccine Plan and America’s first pandemic influenza preparedness and response plan. Dr. Gellin’s years of experience working at several of the country’s leading medical agencies allowed him to share valuable insights on the power of vaccines, as well as the challenges associated with population-level immunization, with our class.

Our discussion with Dr. Gellin centered around the efforts to develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccinations. According to Dr. Gellin, the current race to find an effective vaccine has been unique in many ways. For example, COVID-19 vaccines such as those developed by Pfizer and Moderna benefitted from having unprecedentedly fast development timelines and extremely high efficacies. However, despite the quick development of promising COVID-19 vaccines, the world must still tackle the challenge of population-level immunization. During our discussion, Dr. Gellin made a distinction between what he called the “vaccine world” and the “vaccination world”; in other words, the processes of developing vaccines and successfully distributing them have their own unique hurdles and require input from experts with different perspectives. The United States has implemented relatively few mass vaccination programs as compared to other countries, so new solutions and infrastructure may be needed to successfully manufacture and distribute COVID-19 vaccines domestically.

Beyond the logistical challenges associated with population-level immunization, Dr. Gellin also spoke to the issue of vaccine hesitancy, which is a particularly pressing concern in the United States. In May 2020, polls indicated that nearly 50% of Americans were unsure about the COVID-19 vaccine, while significantly fewer individuals in the United Kingdom and France were concerned. Dr. Gellin explained that vaccine hesitancy may stem from a handful of causes, including an overall lack of transparency about how vaccines are developed and the historical distrust that certain communities have towards the medical community. Increased education on vaccines and outreach to communities that have been historically neglected or mistreated could help increase public acceptance towards vaccination.

Dr. Gellin’s insights on vaccines were particularly timely and relevant to the pressing fight to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, the themes of access, global cooperation, and acceptance of public health measures that he raised in our discussion are timeless and will continue to be critical for individuals in the global health community to consider moving forward.

Liddy Kasraian (C’21) is an undergraduate studying biology of global health and Chinese and a student in the Conversations in Global Health course. She is also a clinical operations intern at Jounce Therapeutics.