This has been a tough blog to write. The discussion of the scientific process, social and political behavior, and personal choice in the country is difficult. No matter how objective I can be, emotional reaction from every perspective clouds the imperfect scientific process.
The Pew Research Center and recent Gallup polls determine that nearly 40% of Americans will either “definitely not” or “probably not” get the vaccine. And when you break down the demographics, the numbers are worse, with nearly 60% in the “definitely and probably not” camp. This does not bode well for the overall goal of herd immunity. By conservative estimates, we will need at least 70% of Americans to get the vaccine for effective herd immunity. Recent estimates by immunology and epidemiologic experts think that the number should be closer to 85%. On one extreme, there are the so-called “anti-vaxers” for whom no vaccine is safe, along with the multiple conspiracy theories pushing a nefarious narrative for the use of vaccines to the other end where you have government authorities stating everyone should get vaccinated. I am willing to bet those of you reading this fall under the “reasonably skeptical” camp.
To be reasonably skeptical is a good thing. A researcher and scientist should be unbiased and skeptical, doubting everything but looking at both sides of the issue. Part of the mistrust is the way the vaccine has been used as a political tool. Another contributor is the general public’s lack of understanding and the basic-science world counting on what is known as “the scientific method.” Unfortunately, there is no such thing. Well, ok, maybe that’s a bit overstated.
This pandemic and the development of a vaccine for a novel virus have brought to light to the general public the scientific process of exploration, observation, hypothesis, testing, feedback, outcomes, mistakes, and repeat. There is no single method for this process. And this process is not linear. Scientists go back and forth throughout this process, pushed ideally by results and yes….. biases and money. This process is not easily understood by the public and not easily accomplished in the scientific and medical world. Scientists and medical doctors tend to hide amongst themselves, gather in conferences, argue, chip away at problems, change our minds, be wrong, yell at each other, and come up with a consensus, then make these answers public. This pandemic brought this process into the public light. And it isn’t pretty. I could go on about this process but let us discuss this in the context of the development of these COVID vaccines.
A novel virus, a virus this world has never seen before a little over a year ago. The timeline for vaccine development seemed to be rushed. Misinformation about the virus and the vaccine came from half-truths and in some instances, overt lies. Mistrust from a history of the flawed scientific process, government mistrust, and the sudden spotlight on the imperfect scientific process was processed through social media. Let me address some myths and explanations of the current COVID vaccines.
- Let’s start with an easy one: Vaccines carry microchips to track individuals. Simple answer? No, they don’t. Just stop thinking that. If you believe this, please wrap your smart-phone in the aluminum foil you put over your head to protect your privacy.
- Vaccine creation was rushed, so it isn’t safe. This is an incomplete thought. This vaccine technology utilizing mRNA has been studied for decades. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused by other coronaviruses have been in the research pipeline for years. Each COVID-19 vaccine had to go through the very cumbersome FDA process’s safety and efficacy standards. What sped up this process was prioritized, money was redirected and dedicated to the scientific process of vaccine development. Previous research was coordinated, and clinical trials included over 70,000 people from diverse backgrounds. This is a deviation from the past history of gender and racial bias of only testing white males. There is usually a lag time between approval and productions. This lag time was cut with an “emergency use” authorization, which allowed for faster distribution of the vaccine.
- This vaccine will alter your DNA. My background and initial scientific interest is genetics. The technology behind the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines is mRNA. Messenger RNA or mRNA is the genetic material in each of your cells that codes for protein production. The mRNA in the vaccine recognizes the protein on the COVID virus surface and teaches your immune system to act specifically against that virus. This mRNA cannot interact with your DNA thus, it cannot alter it.
- You can get COVID infection from the vaccine. No, you can’t. These vaccines do not contain live, weakened, or inactive virus. It takes anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks to develop immunity. During that time period, you can catch the active COVID virus infection or a variant. But you cannot get an infection from the vaccine.
- COVID vaccines are made from fetal tissue. Neither the Moderna nor the Pfizer vaccine is derived from fetal tissue or fetal tissue cell lines. Some of the other COVID vaccines studied were derived from fetal cell lines derived in the 1960s and 70s. No abortions are required for vaccine development. Again, mRNA Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are NOT developed from any fetal cell cultures (1).
- If you have already had a COVID-19 infection, you do not need the vaccine. We do not know the answer to this one yet. There are cases of people with reinfection after the first one. Certainly, do not think you may have had a COVID infection without a test. Get the vaccine.
- The vaccine causes infertility in women. No, it does not. This is a sad claim perpetuated by social media that only serves to feed on fear. mRNA vaccines are specific to the COVID-19 surface proteins that serve to disable the COVID-19 virus.
- The COVID vaccine makes you test positive for the COVID-19 virus. No, it doesn’t. These are not attenuated live or weakened virus vaccines. These are mRNA vaccines that do not trigger a positive COVID-19 test. In fact, during the Moderna vaccine trials fewer people who had received one dose of the vaccine tested positive when compared to the control group who did not receive the vaccine. (2,3,4).
When someone, anyone, begins with the statement “the science shows” or “science says” I cringe. We know that there are few absolutes in medicine and science and even fewer single answers to anything. Unfortunately, people are looking for just that, single absolute answers. Consistent messaging is difficult when the things being studied are new, and the science is evolving. An opinion piece written by Dr. Laurence Turka, a professor at Harvard Medical School and chief scientific officer of Rubius Therapeutics, discusses the communication difficulty between scientist and the general public:
One of the main concerns is the risk of rare and undocumented long-term side effects. This is a legitimate concern since there has not been enough time passed to evaluate this. Vaccine studies have only followed people for a few months. We know that if there are going to be severe events from a vaccine, these will occur within days to weeks after vaccination. What we do not know are the long-term effects. Back to what we do know and have become more convincing to me are the short- and long-term complications of contracting the COVID-19 infection (5,6). Think Lyme’s Disease and Syndrome. The mortality rate (death rate) is quite small. However, long term issues are unpredictable, and avoiding the infection is key to avoiding long term consequences.
Skepticism is a key ingredient to moving forward with the truth. Healthy skepticism does not mean denying anything that you do not believe. It is ok to be hesitant about the unknown. My job as a physician and educator is to sort out the science, look at the studies, find the practical application of those studies, and present the information. I did not post the photos of me getting the vaccine to shame those who choose to wait or not get the vaccine. I posted to show that after looking at all we know about the vaccine and how it came to be, I believe it is the right thing for me, my patients,…………….and yes, I trust my decision enough to recommend my son and wife who has heart disease to get the vaccine. Each has had the 2nd dose.
- How fast will vaccines take effect in stopping the pandemic? https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2021/01/23/how-fast-can-vaccination-against-covid-19-make-a-difference?utm_campaign=editorial-social&utm_medium=social-organic&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR1T0kfCRsf9wygKDQRq2FEWXxotaBesokh3lls1-dPnJR54g4Pfi6v7sPM