From the Dean: The latest on COVID vaccines

One of the very positive things we have going on at the School is outstanding leadership of our student leaders. Here’s one example: as required by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME, the accrediting body for U.S. medical schools that I’ve mentioned before), the students are conducting a survey of student opinions on a wide variety of issues related to their education. Called the Independent Student Analysis (ISA), it is an important component of the accreditation process; as you may know, our next site visit by the LCME will be in April 2022. Thanks to the incredible efforts of our student leaders, the School has achieved the unique accomplishment of having 100% completion of the survey by our 297 medical students from the first-year class through the fourth-year class! To the best of my knowledge, no other medical school in the country has ever achieved that milestone! So, congratulations to our medical student leaders and to all four classes of medical students.

The pandemic obviously continues to be a major issue for all of us. I have been involved in any number of virtual discussions recently regarding the rapidly emerging situation with vaccines for SARS-CoV-2. As you undoubtedly know, two vaccines (one developed by Pfizer and the other by Moderna) likely will be issued Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) imminently – possibly as early as next week, with shipment to commence shortly thereafter. The distribution of the vaccines is being determined by the federal government and is based on population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is developing guidelines for prioritizing who gets treated first, but the actual determination of priority groups will be at the state level. As such, we could use your help in getting the word out – especially to the general public – that while the development, testing, and production of the vaccines has proceeded at an unbelievably accelerated pace, testing of the safety and efficacy of the vaccines has NOT been rushed or politically influenced. Please try to talk to your friends and colleagues about this, because there is some vaccine resistance out there. Remind folks that the name of the vaccine development program – Operation Warp Speed – refers mainly to the production side of things, and not to the evaluation side. One of the reasons that vaccine will be able to be shipped literally the day after the EUA is issued is because Operation Warp Speed paid the companies to produce and store many vials of vaccine in the hope that the vaccine would be approved at some point in the future. Well, that future date for approval likely is next week, so the gamble looks like it is going to pay off big time! There has been no rush to shortcut the safety and efficacy evaluation process; it is the same as it has been in the past. Looking at the big picture, though, it is truly amazing that we are at the threshold of having a vaccine available fewer than 12 months after this novel virus first appeared. That is unique in the annals of medicine! And it is especially unique since these first two vaccines are so-called mRNA vaccines that have never been produced before. What a spectacular example of why research – both fundamental and applied/translational – is so critical for all of us. That said, even though a vaccine is on the horizon we must not let our guard down: please continue to wash your hands frequently, wear masks as often as possible, and stay physically distant from each other as we await the vaccine schedule.

Finally, a heads-up about our holiday celebration plans for this year. Obviously, we won’t be having our usual get-togethers that traditionally we hold at the School and on all four campuses due to the pandemic. But we still want to gather the UND SMHS family and exchange season’s greetings. Final details regarding the event will be forthcoming soon, but please pencil in the School’s annual holiday party on your calendar now. The UND SMHS Virtual Holiday Gathering will take place next Thursday, December 10, 2020, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. It should be a fun event and will offer all of us a chance to relax together and share some thoughts. Please try to “attend” if you can. You can sign-up for the event, if you haven’t already, at med.und.edu/events/holiday. Susan and I hope to “see” you there!

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences