Should we trust what Pfizer tells us about its vaccine and omicron?

There is a lot we don’t know.
There is a lot we don’t know.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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As the world continues to gather information about covid-19‘s omicron variant, Pfizer has some good news: Early evidence indicates three doses of vaccine show significantly more protection against omicron compared to two doses.

For the wealthy countries that have large supplies of vaccines, this could be a serious relief. In the US, about a quarter of fully vaccinated individuals have received a booster shot, and numbers are expected to go up as access to the third dose has been opened to all adults irrespective of age and underlying conditions. In European countries, about 14% of the total population (or 17% of adults) have received a booster shot, and many more should be on the way to receiving extra protection.

But there is a problem: We have to take Pfizer’s word for it.

The tests were conducted in a lab, so it’s hard to tell whether the results would be the same under real-life conditions, and there hasn’t yet been an independent review of the findings. Yet the company’s claim quickly made headlines, with little mention that the results presented were not reviewed independently, and even stand at odds with other information that is emerging about the variant.

Pfizer information is only a piece of a large puzzle

The tendency to give covid-19 drugmakers’ claims on the efficacy of their products as much credence as independent reviews has been a pattern through the pandemic. Be it the overall efficacy of the vaccine, its fitness for children, or the necessity of a booster dose, the announcements of the results of drugmakers’ internal trials have been met with a troubling lack of skepticism. Often, the results were given such prominence in the press that the subsequent authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) seemed like rubber stamps.

As a publicly-traded company, Pfizer has an obligation to share material information, such as the results of an internal study, that could be market-moving. But it’s important that the media put the results into context, and highlight that they are part of a rapidly changing body of knowledge, says Ivan Oransky, the founder of Retraction Watch and a professor of medical journalism at New York University.

While internal test results could well be accurate, independent reviews without the same biases might find less encouraging outcomes from those of the company. This happened, for instance, with Merck’s antiviral pill for covid-19, which was found to be far less effective than the company had announced once its efficacy was reviewed independently.

There isn’t an easy way out of this. On the one hand, there is an imperative to share more information. On the other, a constant downpour of medical and scientific facts, particularly when they might contradict each other, can erode trust, and in this case provide ammunitions to those willing to discredit public health authorities, says Oransky.

The only antidote is to provide as much context as possible, often, and as early as possible—although that is increasingly hard to do with the speed at which our collective consumption of medical information has progressed since the onset of covid-19.