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COVID-19 Vaccine Experts Lead Third Installment of President's Speaker Series

March 30, 2021  | 4 min read

On Monday, March 29, 2021, the Pepperdine community gathered for the third installment of the President’s Speaker Series for an exploration and discussion on “Vaccines: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?” The panel, which took place over Zoom, was moderated by Dee Anna Smith (’86), CEO of Sarah Cannon, the Cancer Institute of HCA Healthcare, and chair of the Pepperdine Board of Regents, and connected the community with leading experts Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, Stephen M. Hahn, former commissioner of food and drugs at the US Food and Drug Administration, and Jonathan B. Perlin, president of the Clinical Services Group and chief medical officer of HCA Healthcare.

The event opened with remarks from president Jim Gash (JD ’93) expressing sincere thanks to all panel participants for taking time to illuminate the behind-the-scenes work of modern science and expand trust before turning it over to Smith to lead the discussion.

Smith introduced each of the panelists in turn before asking each of the panelists to share how they got to where they are now—working on one of the most pressing and critical projects in public health today. 

Stéphane BancelIn late 2019, Bancel recalls reading about the new pneumonia-like infection in China and quickly sending an email to Dr. Anthony Fauci and his team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to ask what they knew about it. That email marked the beginning of Moderna’s collaboration with Fauci and the NIH. When the virus’ genetic sequence became available, Moderna scientists worked within 48 hours to develop a formula for the first vaccine. On March 16, 2020, after receiving the green light from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the vaccine was approved to begin clinical trials with the NIH. 

Hahn shared how research driven patient-first care has been a driving passion for him throughout his career. Through his service as the commissioner of the FDA, he saw it as a combination of service to the American people and research and data-driven approaches to develop novel therapies and diagnostics. He initially anticipated that his time at the FDA would focus on e-cigarettes and opioids, but his focus quickly shifted to COVID-19 by early 2020.

Perlin related that his background in pharmacology, health services, and at the US Department of Veteran Affairs after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, helped him gain perspective on how to prepare for and handle the next crisis. Like Hahn, he recalled how conversations shifted quickly to COVID-19 in early 2020, sharing, “None of us could really anticipate what this past year has yielded.” 

When Smith asked Bancel to speak on the latest news released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bancel was eager to share how the data shows that mRNA vaccines, particularly the COVID-19 vaccine, are proving high efficacy rates with remarkable rates of protection even after just the first dose of the Moderna vaccine with increasing protection throughout the two weeks following both the first and second doses. 

Stephen M. HahnA common theme throughout each of the panelists points was the power of the tremendous collaborations between numerous teams in both public and private sectors. Hahn shared just how much this experience could serve as a roadmap for the future, proving that novel therapy developments can be done expeditiously without jeopardizing quality or efficacy. Bancel recalled in the 25 years of his career never seeing such strong collaboration and dedication from every scientist and expert involved across all industries. 

In light of the polarizing discussions surrounding vaccinations, Smith asked the panel how they approach talking with family members, loved ones, or friends who may have reservations about receiving the vaccine and express concerns about the long-term effects and safety. 

Jonathan B. PerlinPerlin led the response, sharing, “As [Bancel] has said, this isn’t new technology. This is built off of decades of top vaccine research and expertise . . . it’s one world, and we have to consider [public] health as a national security, economic, and human rights issue.” 

Bancel and Hahn agreed, each adding how we must all work together to protect those around us by getting vaccinated and continuing to follow mask guidelines. Hahn reflected on the importance of caring for our immunocompromised neighbors. He also reinforced the importance of expanding health education and reaching out to those who are most vulnerable who are oftentimes unable to gain access to proper healthcare or who may be more skeptical of healthcare systems.

As the rate of vaccination increases across the country, Bancel shared his excitement about checking the data every day and seeing the rates of deaths and hospitalizations continue to decline. He is hopeful that by 2022 vaccination rates will increase so much that the mutation of the COVID-19 strain will be minimal. Bancel also shared his hopes for the development and distribution of a COVID-19 booster within the influenza vaccine to continue to stay ahead of the virus. He hopes that, as global citizens, Moderna and US government officials will be able to find ways to export vaccines to other countries to support global public health.

President Gash and Smith closed the event with sentiments of sincere thanks to each of the panelists for their sleepless nights and continued sacrifices to save millions of lives in the midst of the pandemic. Gash shared that their historical work will be talked about and remembered for generations to come.

In ongoing efforts to build a community of belonging, the Office of the President launched the President’s Speaker Series to welcome distinguished scholars and thought leaders representing diverse points of view to examine topics and issues facing our communities and the world today. Driven by a desire to connect deeply with the University community and inspire meaningful dialogue, the series provides opportunities to cultivate an engaged and impassioned collective through civil discourse.

A full recording of the event will be available on the President’s Speaker Series page.