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Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly both pause COVID-19 trials amid safety concerns

Dr. Heather Yeo, Associate Professor of Surgery & Healthcare Policy at Weill Cornell Medical College, joins Yahoo Finances Akiko Fujita to discuss the rise in COVID-19 cases and the vaccine race outlook.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Shares of Johnson & Johnson slipping in this session, off about 2.5% right now after the drug-maker paused its clinical trial for its coronavirus vaccine after one of its patients became unexpectedly sick, according to the company. The company putting out a statement saying the volunteer is being reviewed and evaluated by its independent data safety monitoring board, adding that, quote, "adverse events, illnesses, and accidents, even those that are serious, are an expected part of any clinical study, especially large studies."

Let's bring in Dr. Heather Yeo. She is a SurvivorNet medical advisor and associate professor of surgery and health care policy and research at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Yeo, great to have you on today. Let me just get your response to that statement coming out of Johnson & Johnson. It's funny, a lot of us are really learning about the process, the trials, and the bumps that come along with vaccine development. So what do you make of the news, in terms of this clinical trial being paused? How significant is it?

HEATHER YEO: I mean, as a clinician and a researcher, we're all quite familiar with vaccine trials and how frequently they get paused. Very few drugs actually make it to market. I mean, what we've seen over the last eight months, in terms of pharmaceutical development, has actually been relatively exciting.

But the entire clinical trials process is to vet whether or not a drug is safe and efficacious towards what it's supposed to be. And so I'm not that surprised. Only about, you know, 10% to 15% of pharmaceuticals that actually make it to clinical trials testing make it to market. So I think, as a clinician who's seen this and seen drug development, we're not surprised. They haven't halted it. I think they're just reviewing to try and figure out whether or not some side effects that they're seeing are related.

AKIKO FUJITA: We just have a graphic there on screen about all of the drug-makers that are involved in some kind of development of a coronavirus vaccine. As you look at where J&J is right now, how do you think it's positioned in this broader race for some kind of coronavirus vaccine?

HEATHER YEO: I mean, the technology that they're using for this vaccine is one that has been established. They actually use it-- a kind of common cold virus that they put a vector on that has the little coronavirus spikes on it. And so I mean, I think the technology that they're using is a solid technology. But whether or not this vaccine is going to go forward, I mean, it's really unclear.

I think that the recent emergence of multiple companies trying to get a vaccine for us I think is exciting and hopefully will lead to something over the course of the next several months. But usually, from a drug trial to actually reaching market, is between five to seven, eight years. So seeing something over the next few months would be a little surprising.

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's talk about where we are, in terms of the number of coronavirus cases. We have certainly been monitoring a big uptick in the Midwest over the last several weeks. And now you've got the president who says that he has been cleared by his doctor to go back out there because he's no longer symptomatic, holding these rallies. Yesterday it was in Florida. How big of a concern is that for you, as you see all of this play out?

And to the broader question here, there's some debate about whether we're in a first wave still or it's a second wave, but we have started to see that expected uptick in the numbers that are likely to overlap with the flu season. How are you watching that right now? And how is what's playing out this time around different than what we experienced early on in the pandemic?

HEATHER YEO: You know, as a clinician who's certainly concerned about the surge of cases in coronavirus, I think that it's important that we follow the public health measures that we know are out there and actually are helpful. I think that Dr. Anthony Fauci said there are five things that we can try and do to kind of stay the pandemic. And the number one thing that we know that helps prevent transmission in an aerosolized virus an airborne illness, which we now know this is, is mask wearing.

We also need to make sure that we follow social distancing. We also need to avoid major large gatherings as much as we can. And this is going to be harder in the winter months. It's going to be important for us to try and do activities outdoors when we can do them. And then simple things that we should be doing anyway, such as hand washing, can help any germs spread throughout the winter months.

AKIKO FUJITA: And finally, a case that we've been tracking or following out of Nevada, a 25-year-old man there who was infected with the coronavirus twice. The second time, as we understand it, was more dangerous than the first time. It required hospital treatment as well. Fortunately, he's recovered. But what does this say about how much immunity somebody can actually build up to the virus, and how are you looking at that particular case in the broader picture of how to treat the virus, but also how to track it?

HEATHER YEO: Yeah, I think that's really difficult, and it's something we're still trying to figure out. You know, I've talked to a number of infectious disease experts, trying to understand how immunity actually works with this. And just like the common cold and many other history things that we've seen over the past century, has been an understanding that we-- for some vex-- for some viruses, we may build immunity after a few exposures. But for others, it takes more frequent exposure.

I, myself, had coronavirus in March and tried to donate plasma about a month, month and a half later. And my antibody levels had actually gone below what would be helpful for donation. So I think there's still so much we don't know about this virus.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, certainly a good reminder, even as we are now-- what? In month seven or eight of COVID here in the US. Dr. Heather Yeo with the Weill Cornell Medical College, great to have you on today.

HEATHER YEO: Thanks so much. I appreciate it.