By Patrick McAuliffe
As the world begins to reopen from the pandemic and millions of COVID vaccines are being administered to more and more groups of people, a startling trend has started to emerge. Talking heads, people who haven’t left home in a year, and many others in between are calling for legislation to mandate proof of vaccination against COVID in order for a person to return to pre-pandemic participation in society. Restaurants, airports, concert venues, and more would require a “vaccine passport” just to get in. Proportionality bias – the human brain making the irrational deduction that big events must have big causes – may cause one to jump fully off the conspiracy theory deep end about the whole affair. In my view, whether the COVID vaccine is truly safe and effective, or it’s purely experimental gene therapy rotting the brain because of Bill Gates’ microchipping, is irrelevant. The safety of the vaccine, deduced from reputable sources, will be explored in this article. However, at the heart of the issue is the massive affront to liberty and legality that is a “vaccine passport” law.
The COVID vaccines most common in the US market at the moment are mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. A typical vaccine uses a weakened or inactive version of the virus it is trying to prevent, allowing for the T-cells in our bodies to learn how to defeat it without the serious side effects of the real virus. mRNA vaccines, however, don’t imitate a virus itself so much as the “spike protein” used to deliver copies of the virus’ RNA into healthy cells (the messenger RNA, hence the name). If the structure of a given virus spike protein is known, replicas of this protein can be used in vaccines to teach white blood cells to attack these mRNA proteins, preventing the virus from replicating upon transmission. According to Harvard Medical School and the CDC, experimentation with mRNA vaccines has been conducted for decades, and the appearance of COVID-19 has provided an “exciting” opportunity, as Harvard puts it, to put these experiments to the test.
Like many people, I was hesitant to immediately jump on board with a vaccine that was produced and tested in under a year. The FDA takes years to approve any sort of new medical technology, and no new vaccine has been approved in fewer than four years, according to Harvard Medical School. In the case of COVID-19, the reason that this vaccine took such a short amount of time to test, produce, and distribute is that Chinese scientists had a head start on studying and cataloging the structure of the virus. The Annual Review of Virology contains a study on the methods of coronavirus spike protein bonding from September 2016, and Science magazine has another study on the specific structure of COVID-19 from March 2020. This latest study is based on the data from China’s scientists, which may be part of the reason why some QAnon-types claim that COVID was grown in a Chinese lab as a biological weapon. For a virus with an approximately 1-2% mortality rate, COVID-19 is a rather poor biological weapon if this was the case.
I encourage doing one’s own research from multiple reputable sources to understand how these mRNA vaccines work and why they could be produced so quickly. Growing large amounts of a virus and then working to weaken it enough for use in a traditional vaccine takes exponentially more time than merely replicating a harmless version of a virus’ delivery system. The overview I’ve provided is a very basic explanation of how the COVID vaccine works, and the scientific intricacies are worth taking the time to fully understand. My skepticism about the process by which the vaccines were produced has been significantly abated through my research. I can say with confidence that the mRNA vaccines will not cause, for most people, adverse long-term side effects.
What is not abated, however, is my skepticism about the motives of the large pharmaceutical companies producing the vaccines and the government policies surrounding the mass vaccinations. Pfizer, producer of the most effective COVID vaccine at 95% efficacy, has had a long history of settlement payments and lawsuits, some of which totaled in the billions of dollars. In 1996, Pfizer even conducted an unauthorized clinical trial for its antibiotic Trovan on children in Nigeria, 11 of whom died and dozens more of whom were left disabled, according to drugwatch.com. Both Pfizer and Moderna made millions from selling their companies’ shares in the stock market as news of their vaccines’ effectiveness was released to the public, raising questions from NPR and Forbes about insider trading. Johnson & Johnson, producer of a 65% effective COVID vaccine, had to dispose of 15 million incorrectly produced doses on April 5th. One day later, the New York Times reported that 62 million more doses of J&J’s vaccine would potentially need to be thrown out after checking them for contamination. My reservations about these companies are that they seem to either be purely motivated by crony profit or they are horrendously incompetent.
The concern about crony acquisition of money comes to a head as the international debate about mandatory vaccine passports rages. Should proof of vaccination be required to return to a pre-COVID operation of society, this may provide a cover for large pharmaceutical companies to lower their quality control standards. If people have no choice but to take the vaccine (and its inevitable subsequent boosters), and only a few vaccines are authorized by the government for production and distribution, the companies have an incentive to let the safety of their vaccines slide. What can anybody do about it? They have the weight of the federal government behind them, and they’ll keep making their money.
This concern, along with several others, will make both mandatory vaccine passports and herd immunity through vaccination very difficult. According to an NPR poll, 1 in 4 Americans say that they would refuse to get the COVID vaccine. This is a diverse group of people, from the QAnon-types to people in rural areas, where COVID transmission is less of a problem, to a large portion of African-American and other minority communities. This last group has valid cause for concern about the mass push to get vaccinated due to the government’s historical bad faith healthcare in their communities.
For those unfamiliar, the study commonly referred to as the Tuskegee Experiment took place from 1932 to 1972 in Macon County, Alabama. The horrifically unethical study was conducted by the US Public Health Service to track the progression of syphilis in the African-American community. 600 men, primarily sharecroppers who did not frequently receive medical care, were tricked into the study by members of the PHS. 201 of the men served as the control group for the other 399 that had syphilis. Over the course of the study, the men were only given placebos and very basic medical care, such as aspirin, by the PHS, which was determined to see how syphilis in African-American men would fully manifest. The government discouraged local doctors from providing treatment to the men, hoping to establish a truly controlled experimental setting. PHS conducted an internal investigation into the study in the mid-1960s, but as internal investigations tend to go, the study was permitted to continue until July 1972, when the study became public news and mass outcry forced the PHS to end the study. By its end, 128 African-American men had died from syphilis or a related condition, 40 spouses and 19 children contracted the disease, and hundreds more suffered the gruesome side effects of syphilis, including blindness and insanity. For their trouble, survivors of the Tuskegee Experiment and their heirs received a $10 million out-of-court settlement from the US government in 1974, and former President Bill Clinton issued a public apology in 1997. The deep distrust of government-sponsored healthcare among minority communities seems fairly obvious from this atrocity and the long train of atrocities before this.
These valid concerns from several demographics of American society make vaccine passports a very problematic nationwide policy. This idea is nothing like getting a flu shot to participate in sports or to go to a certain school; what is being proposed is a mandate that any sort of public participation at all requires a health decision made, not by the individual, but by the government. Perhaps some people may not need a vaccine if they are at low risk for COVID infection. Perhaps some people live in areas where the healthcare system can adequately support those with the most serious symptoms. Much like blanket lockdowns, where the attitude has become “sick until proven healthy”, vaccine passports are a massive affront to the freedom of people to make decisions about their own health.
It could be argued that the right to make these types of decisions for oneself must be suspended when the consequences of one’s actions produce negative externalities for those around them. Governor Cuomo has adopted this mentality, perhaps to its actual extreme: “You’d be killing Grandma,” or put more tactfully, that refusing a vaccine directly places a person or a group of liberty-minded people at the epicenter of putting the most vulnerable populations at risk of infection and possible death. Not only does this mentality rely on the above “sick until proven healthy” axiom, it also discounts the ability of people to make rational choices about infecting others. If someone doesn’t feel well, they will stay home to prevent others from catching what they have; if they see someone who appears sick, they will take measures to keep themselves healthy. This was the assumption about avoiding disease transmission before the pandemic, and it should be the assumption during and after the pandemic. To reduce these choices of individuals to a vaccination card mandated by the government is a dangerous way of thinking that opens the door for other restrictions on the free choices of individuals. The vaccine is scientifically safe to take, and (for now) it is effective at reducing COVID-19 infection and transmission. At the end of the day, however, it is still your right to refuse it, and your responsibility to carry both the freedom and duties of that choice.