Our next interviewee is Dr Ofer Levy of Boston Children’s Hospital; he joined us in Washington for several different sessions to explore adjuvants and immune profiling. In this interview we continue our conversation from the Congress in Barcelona last year, learning more about the importance of precision medicine and what we can do to be better prepared for future threats. We were glad to reconnect with Dr Levy and hope that you enjoy hearing from him again!
Introducing Dr Levy
Like many of our wonderful speakers Dr Levy has quite a full plate! He is a staff physician at Boston Children’s Hospital, a professor of paediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and he directs the Precision Vaccines Programme at the hospital!
“That is an academic, multidisciplinary programme that uses cutting-edge approaches to discover and develop vaccines that are tailored to vulnerable populations.”
The importance of precision medicine
Last time we spoke to Dr Levy he explained a bit about the importance of precision medicine. He emphasises this again here, suggesting that the assumption that one vaccine will have the same effect for a man or a woman, a young person or an older person, is outdated.
“All of these factors and many others affect vaccine safety, immunogenicity, and sometimes even efficacy.”
Therefore, precision medicine can be applied to vaccine development to tailor the product more appropriately to more specific patients.
How, then, does immune profiling contribute? Dr Levy describes “powerful tools” to study the human immune system. These approaches can “accelerate, de-risk, and improve” vaccine development.
Still learning from COVID-19
Weeks after the Congress, COVID-19 was declared to no longer represent a PHEIC by WHO. However, for experts like Dr Levy, the lessons we need to learn are not complete. For example, Dr Levy identifies the importance of “prior investment in science” that ensured the “world was better positioned” to develop safe and effective vaccines.
“That’s a lesson that we need to continue to invest in research.”
Another lesson was the “inspiring” and “unparalleled” collaboration across institutions, which was a “very humbling” thing to witness for Dr Levy. He shares his experience of working through the pandemic when other labs were closed. Next, Dr Levy believes in the “importance of innovation” and being open minded, receptive to “new ways to solve problems”. We also need to learn from our regulatory experience during the pandemic.
“There’s a natural tension between speed and safety.”
As a member of the VRBPAC, Dr Levy was impressed by the FDA’s process, which he describes as inspirational in its transparency. Describing the importance of publishing every communication between members of the committee, Dr Levy thinks this honesty is “beautiful” and in “sharp contrast with what most countries do”.
“Never perfect, we’re human beings; human beings are not perfect.”
Keeping the public on side
Despite the vaccine community’s success during the pandemic, vaccine hesitancy continues to cause global problems. We asked Dr Levy about how the community can keep the public ‘on side’ and what worked well in the pandemic.
“You can design the best vaccine in the world; if people don’t want to take it, you’re not going anywhere.”
Dr Levy suggests that sharing as much of the process as possible with the public is key. From his experience, “every word and sentence that I as an expert received” is “made public”. In terms of a “transparent process”, that’s “really good”. Another aspect of the process is “public commentary”, and Dr Levy’s experience with the FDA shows the benefits of allowing the public to voice their questions or concerns: “sometimes pro-vaccine, sometimes hesitant, sometimes anti-vax”.
“Sometimes it’s quite uncomfortable, and I think we still are learning how to best handle that, how to best respect that feedback process, but at least that exists as well.”
Interestingly, Dr Levy comments on the importance of “humility”: “to acknowledge what we don’t know”.
“In my opinion, more experts should spend time trying to provide information to the general public, in lay terms.”
He also raises the issue of “public funds”; people should be able to trace their money to understandable outcomes.
“The public deserves to know, and deserves to have their questions answered.”
Too tired for diseases?
At the Congress a lot of thought was given to future threats, such as re-emerging diseases or Disease X. We asked Dr Levy about how we can overcome possible vaccine or pandemic fatigue and encourage innovation and preparation. He acknowledges that after the past few years, people are tired of living with infectious diseases.
“We’re all done with this pandemic.”
Recognising that “we’re tired” of preventative measures, responses, and interventions, Dr Levy warns that this is not the time to be complacent.
“We might be done with infectious diseases, but infectious diseases are not done with us.”
Pointing out the many possible threats, Dr Levy calls for continued investment in surveillance and vaccine platforms, to equip ourselves against whatever may be around the corner.
Why come to the Congress?
Finally, we asked Dr Levy to share with us his reasons for joining us in Washington. He suggests that casual encounters in the hallways, the poster sessions, and on the exhibition floor, are really beneficial alongside the sessions.
“Just being here is a blessing.”
Furthermore, “Washington DC in the spring is a beautiful location – can’t argue with that!”
As always, it was a pleasure to speak to Dr Levy, and we hope that you find his comments interesting. Be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter for more like this. For details of the Congress click here to download our post-event report.