Combatting the Rise of Anti-Vaxxers: Why Faith in Science is Necessary for a New Normal

Photo courtesy of Guy Bell through Shutterstock

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak to be termed a global pandemic. A pandemic, as defined by epidemiologists, is when a disease or illness exceeds normal occurrences and affects a wider geographical area.

During this same month, many of the states in the U.S. established rules, such as a stay-at-home order, in an effort to control the COVID-19 cases. This was primarily an attempt to ensure that hospitals would not be burdened, as there was an increased risk of ICU beds reaching capacity. Cases were averaging around tens of thousands each day and individuals were urged to remain home as much as possible. Additional measures were also announced by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) such as physically distancing, at least six feet apart, and wearing a face covering.

However, flash forward to December 2020, and it seems like most individuals have given up. We are currently averaging upwards of 200,000 cases per day, with no restrictions in sight. Entertainment facilities remain open and the number of individuals who continue to wear masks seems to dwindle.

I remember earlier this year, Dr. Fauci had noted that vaccines would be essential for dampening the effects of COVID-19. I have seen people claim that COVID-19 has a 99% survival rate, so why would I need a vaccine? I realize that the answer may not be as clear to the layperson who lacks a scientific background.

From case studies, it can be noted that although individuals with mild symptoms may survive from COVID-19, the long-term effects are unknown. Patients can develop medical complications that can directly target some of our most important organs like the lungs, heart, and brain. So, yes, of course, there is evidence that shows that the average young, healthy, and fit person will survive COVID-19 — perhaps they may be asymptomatic as well. However, can we say that there is enough evidence that surviving from COVID-19 would not translate into problems in the future? No, of course not. To understand the long-term effects, COVID-19 will have to be examined longitudinally for the next few decades. Hence, I thoroughly believe that without proper research studies, we cannot claim that simply surviving COVID-19 indicates that we will be okay in the future.

This brings me to my next point: herd immunity. Now, the concept of herd immunity is simple, yet I understand why there may be misunderstanding surrounding it due to mainstream media. Herd immunity is the resistance of a group to an attack by a disease to which a large proportion of the group is immune. Many individuals suggest that herd immunity can be established by people intermixing with one another and getting infected with COVID-19. However, this is not ideal. For one, populations are made up of individuals who are immunocompromised, older, or have other co-morbidities. We know that being part of this group, alongside having COVID-19, is an increased risk factor for poor outcomes, often which includes death. Additionally, research studies have shown that immunity towards COVID-19 re-infection seems to last approximately six months. This is definitely not indicative of having a protective effect, hence why vaccines come into play.

Herd immunity is often established with the use of vaccines. Vaccines create immunity without causing illnesses or resulting in complications. With herd immunity, we are able to protect the population from diseases, including those who cannot be vaccinated. In the past, vaccines have successfully controlled smallpox, polio, rubella, among many others. Experts anticipate that around 70% of the total US population, or 200 million, need to be infected with COVID-19 for herd immunity to be achieved. Now, if 200 million individuals were infected with COVID-19, this would drastically put a strain on our healthcare system. Thus, with vaccines, herd immunity can occur without overwhelming hospitals and severe health complications, which could otherwise occur with natural infection.

With the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CDC approving two mRNA vaccines, there seems to be a lot of skepticism in the air. As someone who has learned to dissect scientific literature and analyze research throughout the years due to my background, I understand why confusion and concerns may arise. With any new medication that comes to the market, we see advertisements displaying hundreds of potential side effects and we often question the point of administering the medication in the first place. With COVID-19 vaccines being developed in record time, it is understandable that people are doubtful. I believe that an important part of understanding science is to question it, after all, critical thinking will help expand our knowledge. When we question the COVID-19 vaccines, it’s important to remember several things:

  1. Vaccine research is not new. We have been creating vaccines for centuries now, starting with the inquisitive nature of Edward Jenner. In 1796, Jenner successfully used cowpox to create immunity towards smallpox. His methods have undergone change throughout these years, as shown in the mid-20th century, when the bulk of vaccine research and development occurred to combat measles, mumps, and rubella. We often create vaccines by building on existing research and knowledge about other coronavirus strains.
  2. Vaccines undergo a hefty process. In phase I, a vaccine is evaluated for safety and is tested on a small number of individuals. In phase II, the clinical study is expanded and given to individuals of certain characteristics, based on age and physical health. These characteristics are meant to be similar to the general population. Phase III in clinical trials occurs when vaccines are given to a large number of individuals to test for safety and efficacy. Additionally, vaccines may undergo phase IV, which simply allows for further research after the vaccine has been approved and licensed. Furthermore, when vaccine companies like Pfizer & BioNTech and Moderna filed for emergency use authorization, the vaccines had to be approved by the FDA and CDC for distribution based on evidence published in their research studies.
  3. This is the first time in history where many countries are dedicating all their resources towards developing a COVID-19 vaccine. The novel coronavirus is impacting 218 countries and territories, including Antarctica. This is a global crisis and the only way to eradicate it is for the world to come together and share knowledge with one another.
  4. mRNA vaccines may be a new technology, but it has been widely studied for decades for Zika, flu, rabies, and cytomegalovirus. Cancer research has also utilized mRNA to trigger the immune system to target specific cancer cells. Regular vaccines protect against infectious diseases by putting a weakened strain of the virus in our body. However, the mRNA vaccines do not do this. Instead, mRNA teaches our cells to create a protein that triggers an immune response. This produces antibodies against COVID-19 to prevent us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.
  5. Although side effects may occur due to the vaccine, this is rare. News outlets have reported cases of Bell’s palsy and severe allergic reactions among individuals who have gotten the vaccine. Bell’s palsy is categorized by temporary weakness or paralysis of your facial muscles. The exact cause is unknown, however, this is short-term and can be resolved by itself within days. It is possible that the individuals would have had Bell’s palsy regardless of whether the vaccine was administered to them. Additionally, allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines have occurred. It’s important to look at the list of ingredients listed in the vaccines and realize that if you have had a severe reaction in the past to any ingredient, that perhaps you should not get that specific vaccine. After getting the COVID-19 vaccine, the CDC recommends that people are monitored on-site for about 15 to 30 minutes to check vitals and signs of a reaction. Thus, these allergic reactions have been caught and are completely preventable.

Even though we hope that much of the U.S. will be vaccinated by Fall 2021, the CDC still suggests that we continue to social distance and wear masks. We know that these mRNA vaccines have established immunity among recipients for at least three months, however, there is uncertainty about the transmissibility of COVID-19. For example, if a vaccinated individual gets COVID-19, research shows that they will produce antibodies and be protected against the disease. There is not enough research currently that suggests that the vaccinated individual could not spread COVID-19 to a non-infected individual. Thus, while these research studies continue, it is important for us to follow guidelines to protect ourselves and the loved ones around us until the evidence says otherwise.

Now, I will continue to wait for my turn in receiving the vaccine. I trust science and have read the literature surrounding COVID-19 and vaccines. Ultimately, the risks of getting COVID-19 outweigh the risks of vaccines. Thus, getting the vaccine is a risk I am willing to take in order for us to progress to a new normal, whenever that may happen. I understand that not everyone understands science, especially if you’re not in the field. My hope from this article is for individuals to gain a perspective on the importance of vaccination during this pandemic. Perhaps you, also, will be able to envision a future that I wish for us to be in. And if you do possess a scientific background, I urge you to look at the evidence and use your knowledge to your own power to educate yourself and others around you.

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Eshita Garg

Eshita Garg

Eshita is an M.S. Student at Columbia University studying Human Nutrition. She has her B.S. in Physiology and Neuroscience from UCSD.