In interview, COVID-19 vaccine researcher reflects on his work and his faith
Oct 9, 2020
US & World
(The following is the text of an email interview with Dr. David Diemert, a medical doctor and scientist who is part of a team researching a potential COVID-19 vaccine. He serves as a professor in the Departments of Medicine and Microbiology, Immunology & Tropical Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. The questions were emailed to him by Mark Zimmermann, the editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, and Dr. Diemert responded on Oct. 6, 2020.)
Is it true that you’re a longtime parishioner of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and what has the cathedral meant to you over the years?
Yes, I began attending St. Matthew’s Cathedral in 2003 when I moved to Washington, D.C. I don’t remember exactly when I became an “official” parishioner, but it would have been shortly thereafter. Since my area of research has been primarily in the field of global health and tropical medicine, which involves frequent travel overseas (until the current pandemic, of course), I’ve unfortunately been unable to serve the parish community on a regular basis, but I have often volunteered as an ad-hoc collector and offertory processor at the 5:30 p.m. Sunday Mass. The Cathedral has been a literal anchor and oasis for me over the years. In between my frequent trips overseas, attending Mass at St. Matt’s has always provided a spiritual home that I can always count on to return to, one that imparts both a sense of permanence and sustenance. At the Cathedral, I always feel renewed by the liturgy, the music, the reliably intellectually stimulating homilies, and most especially, the celebration of the Eucharist.
Where are you from originally, what drew you to the medical and scientific fields, and how would you summarize your work in those areas?
I was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and completed all of my medical training in Canada (in Edmonton and Montréal) before moving to the U.S. in 2001 to work at the National Institutes of Health on malaria vaccine development. I have been a faculty member at George Washington University since 2008.
Throughout my medical training (and before, to be honest), I had always wanted to work in global health, particularly in less advantaged regions of the world. I had initially thought that I could go volunteer overseas as a medical provider, but I soon realized that I could have a much bigger impact by working as a clinical researcher to help develop vaccines for tropical infections such as malaria and the neglected tropical diseases, for which there were (and sadly, still mostly are) no preventive measures. I’ve been working over the past 20 years on the clinical development of vaccines to prevent infections such as malaria, hookworm and schistosomiasis. Together, these infections affect more than a billion people living in resource-limited areas of the tropics and are often part of the vicious cycle of poverty in these regions.
Is it also correct to say that you’re the principal investigator for the Phase III Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial taking place at George Washington University? What has this experience been like for you?
Yes, I am the principal investigator for the Phase III Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial at the George Washington University site, which is one of about 100 clinical trial sites for this study throughout the U.S. This has been an overwhelming experience, not only due to the amount of work involved, but also because of the enormous responsibility that has been thrust upon the entire vaccine research community due to this unprecedented pandemic. My previous research experience has been mostly centered on conducting clinical trials of experimental vaccines in resource-limited areas of the tropics, among very underserved populations. The Moderna trial has been a pivot for me, in that I am part of a very large trial being conducted exclusively in the U.S.; however, given the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on minority and underserved communities in this country, I have drawn some parallels between my current work on the Moderna trial and my previous work among underserved communities in other countries.
From your perspective, does the coronavirus have unique characteristics, or is there anything about the way the pandemic has unfolded around the world that makes the research and development of the COVID-19 vaccine especially challenging?
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that is responsible for the current COVID-19 pandemic is certainly unique with respect to how infectious it is and how rapidly it has been able to spread throughout the entire world. Although the virus itself is fairly “simple” in comparison to more complex organisms such as malaria or even the HIV virus, the main challenge has been the speed with which it has spread and the need to develop a vaccine quickly in order to interrupt transmission and prevent the severe complications and death due to this infection.
From what you’ve read or heard in the media or perhaps anecdotally from people, are there common misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccines being researched?
As an investigator on the Moderna COVID-19 Phase III vaccine trial, the most common misconception I’ve heard from potential study volunteers is that they might get COVID-19 from the vaccine. For the Moderna vaccine, or any of the other COVID-19 vaccines that are currently in clinical trials in the U.S., this is biologically impossible. None of the vaccines currently being tested in the U.S. contain the entire SARS-CoV-2 virus particle, either dead or alive, so there is no way that someone could actually get COVID-19 from the vaccine.
The other common misconception I’ve heard about the COVID-19 vaccines being tested is that corners are being cut and that they are not being adequately assessed for safety or efficacy. Although clinical development of these vaccines is definitely being fast-tracked, the same precautions and assessments of efficacy (i.e., tests to see if the vaccines actually work to prevent disease) are being followed. Yes, the phases of clinical development (e.g., Phase I, Phase II and Phase III) are being staggered instead of being done sequentially, but the same basic study designs are being followed as if this were a non-pandemic situation. We are still doing the same rigorous assessment of safety and we are still applying the same statistical methods to determine if the vaccines being tested actually prevent COVID-19. We’re just doing it in a much more compressed timeline, thanks mostly to the resources – both human and monetary – being devoted to this effort, without compromising on safety.
As a medical doctor and scientific researcher who is Catholic, what do you think about the ethical concerns that have been raised by some religious leaders, groups and individuals about potential COVID-19 vaccines being developed that are derived from aborted fetus cell lines?
To be honest, throughout my entire clinical research career, I have only worked on vaccines that have been developed without the use of cell lines, so I have never run into this issue before. Cell lines are needed only for the development of live virus vaccines, usually attenuated (that is, modified to make them less likely to cause disease). Some of the COVID-19 vaccines that are being developed do require the use of cell lines in order to produce the vaccine, given the requirement of viruses to use eukaryotic cells in order to replicate (i.e., to survive).
I think that it is important to understand that none of the COVID-19 vaccines being developed are actually derived from cell lines, whether fetally derived or not, but rather, the cell lines are needed to maintain the culture (the propagation) of the virus that forms the basis of the vaccine. Many of the cell lines used for this purpose have been around for decades, and I would hazard a guess to say that most researchers don’t even know the origin of most of these cell lines. Definitely, if some of the cell lines used in maintaining the vaccine virus cultures of some of the COVID-19 vaccines under development were originally derived from aborted fetuses, this could present ethical concerns for Catholics. However, I think that it is important to understand that there is not just one COVID-19 vaccine being developed, and that there will likely be several different ones that are eventually approved and licensed, each using a different means of production. I am confident that there will be options for concerned Catholics who wish to avoid receiving a vaccine that may have utilized a cell line in its production that was originally derived from an aborted fetus.
Regarding mRNA vaccines in particular, such as the ones being developed by Moderna and Pfizer, these are not manufactured by using cell lines, so there should be no ethical or religious concern regarding their use, if licensed.
Once a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccines are approved and available for use in the general population, what would your advice be about vaccination for people in general, and what would you say to people who may have ethical or religious concerns about the origin of the vaccine, or to people with concerns that government officials might have expedited the approval process for political reasons?
Just like for the influenza vaccine, I would recommend that people follow the guidance of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and ACIP (the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) when it comes to getting vaccinated with a licensed COVID-19 vaccine. There will almost definitely be several different vaccines, produced using different methodologies, that are approved by the Food & Drug Administration, so there will be options for people who may have ethical or religious concerns regarding one particular vaccine.
As for concerns regarding government interference with the vaccine approval process or political pressure to expedite licensure, all I can say is that the vaccine research community is committed to ensuring that any vaccine being evaluated undergoes the usual rigorous assessment for both safety and efficacy as if we were not in a pandemic situation. Both the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies that are developing COVID-19 vaccines have stated that they will not compromise on either safety or evaluation of efficacy. As an individual researcher, I can only state that I am 100% committed to this ethic, as well.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally in any way?
I have been personally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in that I have been unable to visit my mother in Canada this year due to travel restrictions, and I have several close friends who have lost immediate family members to the virus. Additionally, my ongoing research activities overseas have been significantly affected by the pandemic, with enrollment into several studies being paused or study activities not being able to be completed due to local restrictions enacted due to the pandemic.
Have you drawn on your Catholic faith or has it given you strength as you’ve been working on the research for the vaccine?
My Catholic faith has given me strength to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant impact it’s made on my day-to-day life. It’s also sustained me as I devote my entire effort (and MANY hours of each day) toward developing an effective vaccine so that we can finally emerge from this plague and re-establish the personal, social, and spiritual connections that have been so curtailed over the past seven months, not to mention to enable the economy to recover so that people can get back to work and provide for their families. Although the work has been exhausting, I’ve drawn sustenance from my faith, in knowing that my personal sacrifice may benefit the greater good.
From your research and from what you know of the other COVID-19 vaccine research underway, are you optimistic about the development and distribution of the vaccine in a timely manner?
I am very optimistic about the development of COVID-19 vaccines in the near future. I say “vaccines” because I truly believe that there will be several effective ones that will be developed and made available to the public. I am not involved in planning for the distribution of licensed vaccines, but I am confident that this country has the resources and infrastructure in place to ensure that vaccines that are licensed will be delivered to those most in need in a timely fashion.