Anti-Covid vaccine: Professor Jacques Cohen’s warning

“On the impression that the vaccine is the risk-free solution, there is a great danger in rushing these first vaccines,” says Prof. Jacques Cohen, Professor Emeritus of the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne, Immunologist, researcher at the nanosciences research laboratory LRN EA4682.

Interview by Dr Jean-Michel Wendling, scientific advisor of the online media

Pr Jacques Cohen
Pr Jacques Cohen (DR)

Jean-Michel Wendling- what should we think of this frantic race between the different laboratories?

Jacques Cohen- Out of a series of 150 vaccines, the first to become available are the RNA vaccines from the Moderna and Pfizer laboratories: these firms went very fast because a vaccine of this type is easy to produce. But this is a totally new solution. Those in the lead don’t necessarily play by all the rules of the game. And all this leads to taking a few risks. But on the perception that the vaccine is the risk-free solution, there is a great danger in rushing these early vaccines.

J-M W- What risks can you expect with these vaccines?

J.C. – I’m a bit annoyed at this point, because I’m a proponent of vaccines and I wouldn’t want to ruin the credit in vaccines in general by going a bit too fast with one vaccine in particular.
On the RNA vaccines that are in the lead, there are risks of inefficacy or complications. We don’t know at this point. There is no evidence of any decline in their toxicity in humans, nor in the duration of antibodies and the protection they confer. This first risk of ineffectiveness is to be seen on a collective and individual scale. Then there are other rare risks of complications related to the vaccination itself.

Concerning potential side effects, it should be remembered that RNA is by itself pro-inflammatory: it has been proposed as a treatment for certain diseases where it acts as an interferon inducer or as an adjuvant for other vaccines. Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer, who lives in the United States, has taken precautions to say “we have no guarantee that our vaccine will be able to stop the epidemic for the time being”, but we tell you that you should take it anyway because it reduces the disease or makes it disappear in more vaccinated people than non-vaccinated people….

J-M W – Is there enough experience with these products and are the evaluation protocols satisfactory?

J.C- These two vaccines have in their trials a criterion for finding those who are sick or not sick, which is only clinical. These laboratories are lighter, allowing them to run ahead in the pack, and a little less loaded with scruples and precautions.

The only thing that is certain is the decrease of severe forms in the vaccinated group. Moderna says that it is not known how long the protection will last or whether or not the vaccine will decrease viral circulation. However, theoretically, the only judge will be clinical, and in 4-5 months, when the monitoring of the vaccinated people will have moved from the producer lab to the entire medical community, we will be able to determine the possible side effects.

J-M W: Are there other vaccine options that you think are safer?

J.C: The Chinese vaccine is probably safer because it is the most proven: it is a copy of the polio vaccine from the 1950s. It is being widely distributed in China by two firms and is beginning to be exported. They would sell it to us if we asked them…. Vaccination is due to begin, for example, not far from our home in Morocco these days.

In France, an SME Valneva is also making a whole-virus inactivated vaccine, but it was the British who pre-ordered 60M doses, and I haven’t heard in the government announcements that they expect a market share in France for this vaccine, which, all in all, seems safer than the other two Moderna and Pfizer vaccines chosen by the French government.

There is also Sanofi, which has allied itself with another major company, GSK, to make a vaccine and MSD associated with Institut-Pasteur that will probably be ready in June for worldwide distribution: they know how to do it. It’s a different process from the vaccines that are running at the top. These labs have chosen to say, “We don’t do this in a rush, we don’t know how to do it, we have very big markets. We’ll crush from our production power those who run too fast if they don’t get perfect results,” and statistically it’s unlikely that the results of the first runners in the race will be perfect.

J-MW – What do you think of the strategy chosen by the government?

J.C.: For politicians, since the economic situation is calamitous, the reasoning is to say: “we don’t know very well so we take those who come first”. We pre-reserve many doses of vaccines. The French government has relied exclusively on recommending the 2 RNA vaccines: the Gallic cockerel puts all its eggs in the same basket. At least until June 2021.

The British government did not make the same choice. It expects to have three different types of vaccines available by the end of the first quarter of 2021. One is ordered from Valnéva, the little French boy, for which a factory has been built in Scotland.

As you know, I’ve been a long-time supporter of vaccines as an immunologist. I haven’t changed my mind at all. I would like us not to take any risks, or to warn the population that the situation may require taking risks, but that we don’t ignore it by infantilizing people, by telling them “the vaccine is the right solution”, which is true, “there are no risks”, which is not true. In any case, those in the lead think that the states are obliged to go through them and that they will be obliged to assume the risks of damages, possibly civil. If there is trouble, they want guarantees that they will not be the ones to pay.

J-MW- Finally, do you think the vaccine will stop the epidemic?

J.C.: You can’t imagine that the vaccine will solve all that in the first few days of 2021. I’m not even convinced that any vaccine on that scale is capable of potentially stopping the epidemic. Things may change by 2022. But I would like to say that, as things stand, only solutions, not vaccination, but prevention through distancing, hygiene, screening – isolation are the proven and effective solutions for eradicating the virus today to end this epidemic, as some Asian countries have shown us.