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Vaccine expert answers vaccine skeptics

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Thursday, May 20, 2021


Courtesy YouTube

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On May 10, the day the FDA announced expanded authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for ages 12 and up, I posted about it on the neighborhood app Nextdoor and encouraged people to get their kids vaccinated. I expected some comments since any vaccine posts are sure to generate response. But the discussion among vaccine-embracers, vaccine-resisters and vaccine-conspiracists immediately became a Top Post. Ten days later, it’s still going. For the most part, it's a civil discussion. But the amount of misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines being shared “in good faith” has been astonishing.

So I asked Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, to weigh in on the most common themes that emerged. Here's what he had to say. 

Norine Dworkin: Parents are concerned that these vaccines are experimental, and kids are being used as “guinea pigs.” What’s your response to that?

Paul Offit: They’re not guinea pigs. There are about 1 million teenagers who’ve already gotten the mRNA vaccines. Because the Pfizer vaccine was approved down to 16 years of age, and the 12- to 15-year-old is not biologically different from a 16- to 17-year-old, you already have a million children who’ve gotten this vaccine. And you have a trial that was done of children 12- to 15 years-of-age, a 2,300 child trial. Half got the vaccine, half got a placebo. The vaccine produced an excellent immune response. And there were 18 cases of Covid-19, all in the placebo group.

If you were a parent in that trial and because of a coin flip, you had your child vaccinated, I’m sure you were happy about that because you didn’t watch one child suffer that infection. On the other hand, if you were in the placebo group, you had to watch 18 children (roughly 1 in 60, a little less than 2 percent) get infected, some significantly. Now you take the coin flip out of it. You can just choose the vaccine group, which is the clearly the safer, better choice.

I understand reluctance. It’s a novel vaccine strategy. It’s been an unusual virus to characterize and isolate, etc. But you have all the data now to make a decision. I think any skepticism should melt away, given how much information we have about these vaccines. The mRNA vaccines have been given to more than 130 million people in this country, There are more than 200 million doses that have been distributed. It’s a safe vaccine. It doesn’t even have a rare side effect problem. The virus on the other hand is not rare. It’s real. It continues to circulate. It continues to infect tens of thousands of people every day. It continues to kill several hundred every day.

ND: There’s a belief that the animal studies were skipped.

PO: Animal studies weren’t skipped. We had SARS 1 in 2003 and MERS [Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, a coronavirus] in 2012. You really had 20 years worth of studies in animal models as well as Phase 1 and Phase 2 studies in people. There was a wealth of data generated in the last 20 years getting ready for this virus.

ND: Commenters pointed out that one can still get Covid-19 even after being vaccinated.

PO: I don’t think we should ever be so cavalier that we think a vaccine protects us 100 percent of the time. That’s never been true for any vaccine, ever. The real-world effectiveness of this vaccine is 90 percent, and that’s against the virus [SARS-COV-2] and the UK variant, but not the New York variant, not the Brazil variant, or the South African variant, all of which are in this country. The vaccine protects against severe, critical disease from those variants, but you’re not as well protected against mild to low-moderate disease, as has been shown.

So, when Tony Fauci was asked by Rand Paul on the Senate floor, “Why are you wearing a mask, you’re vaccinated?” Dr. Fauci said, “Because of the variants. I’m not as well-protected against the variants.” So, of course, you’re at risk because vaccines are not fool-proof.

ND: Many commenters on the thread simply reiterated that it’s their “choice” not to get vaccinated. How do you respond?

PO: I’ve written about the anti-vaxx movement for 20-plus years. And I would have said that nothing they could do would surprise me. But I was wrong. They surprised me in this. You have this pandemic that has brought us to our knees. It has caused massive joblessness, massive homelessness, food insecurity, an increase in domestic violence, an increase in child abuse. It has caused children to be isolated at a vulnerable age where they’ve suffered psychological trauma. And now you have a Get Out of Jail Free Card: You have this vaccine, which was created within a year. It is remarkably safe. It is remarkably effective, and not just in the Phase 3 trials but in the real-world effectiveness data. What do people want? This is about as good of a vaccine as we have, and yet still they put out bad information to try to convince people not to get it, putting themselves and others with whom they come in contact at risk.

I can’t stand that they say, “This is my choice.” It’s not your choice. It’s your choice whether or not to get a tetanus vaccine for yourself because if you get tetanus, nobody’s going to catch it from you. Tetanus is not a contagious disease. Covid-19 is a contagious disease. Your choice to not get vaccinated, puts others at risk, and it also continues to allow the virus to reproduce itself to potentially create variants which then put those who are vaccinated at greater risk.

There’s this line from Neil DeGrasse Tyson that I think is perfect for this: “If people reach a conclusion without using reason or logic, then reason or logic are not going to talk them out of it.” Now you’re talking about compelling people to do the right thing. There are people who don’t want to wear seat belts. There are people who don’t want to put their children in a car seat. So you have laws for that. I think the same thing will ultimately apply here.

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