BOSTON – Earlier this month, New England Journal of Medicine editor-in-chief Dr. Eric Rubin shared his expertise regarding the respective COVID-19 vaccine initiatives by Pfizer and Moderna.
Rubin, who is Jewish, was part of the Food and Drug Administration vaccine advisory committee that voted on whether to recommend emergency-use authorization for the vaccines by the agency. In two separate virtual sessions, the committee voted to support the use of each vaccine: Pfizer on Dec. 11 and Moderna on Dec. 17.
“I think it gave the opportunity for ourselves, experts who have no connection either to the companies or through the government, to have input with the process,” said Rubin, former chair of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases.
The FDA has authorized the use of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as coronavirus cases continue to rise in the U.S.
“They do a nice job being transparent with people, being public about everything,” Rubin said of the FDA approval process. “I think it’s important for people taking a vaccine that has not been around very long, not used on a huge number of people. People need to feel confident.”
The meetings for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine each lasted from 9 a.m. until after 5 p.m., with few breaks. They were livestreamed across multiple platforms.
“In each case, the FDA went carefully through data, presenting data,” Rubin said. “Both committees made [their analysis], the FDA itself made their analysis and opened it up to questions about data.”
Rubin was one of several Boston-area medical experts to attend both meetings, joining Dr. Cody Meissner of Tufts Medical Center. Meissner is a member of the committee, while Rubin is a temporary voting member. Dr. Ofer Levy of Boston Children’s Hospital is also a temporary voting member, and attended the Pfizer meeting but not the Moderna one.
Temporary voting members were added to the committee because “they wanted enough people to review the COVID-19 vaccines,” said Rubin, who got a call from the FDA in September asking if he wished to join.
It has been the latest achievement for Rubin, a Brockton native who grew up attending Temple Israel, his hometown Reform congregation that no longer exists. (Today he is a member of a Conservative congregation Temple Emanuel in Newton.) He showed early aptitude, and when it was time to decide on where he was going to college, his father gave him a suggestion. The younger Rubin was considering Princeton, but his father bought five Harvard T-shirts.
“He was a very funny guy,” said Rubin, who went on to graduate from Harvard in 1980 before graduating Tufts University School of Medicine in 1990. The same year, he also earned a doctorate at Tufts.
Today, he continues to collaborate with Harvard researchers focusing on tuberculosis, which he has studied in depth during his career. He also practices at Brigham and Women’s. Yet his work at the New England Journal of Medicine takes up much of his time; he has been its editor-in-chief since last year.
Rubin calls his work with NEJM “a fantastic privilege,” noting that he gets “to work with incredibly smart, incredibly dedicated people every day.”
This year, the prestigious publication has shifted much of its coverage to COVID-19. The number-one article currently being accessed is about how long the coronavirus can remain on surfaces. Rubin said that this article had accumulated four million views the last time he checked.
“For a medical journal, it’s a lot,” he said. “It’s the most we’ve ever had for anything. Other pieces have been heavily accessed. I think an article describing the Pfizer vaccine, I think last week it [had been] accessed over one million times.”
He reflected on the challenges of continuing to work within COVID-19 limitations, including at NEJM, where the staff is working remotely.
“The journal is really kind of my full-time job now,” he said. “The offices are closed … We’re doing a pretty good job doing everything online. We certainly miss out on all the normal interactions we have.”