Vaccination hesitancy will keep us from herd immunity

Courtesy photo

LEAD — Two weeks after Dr. John Andrews received his second COVID-19 shot, he hit the road for a much-needed vacation.

Like the rest of the country, Lead’s own virologist and immunologist, who has been working on COVID-19 vaccines since the pandemic swept the nation, was eager to see friends and family whom he hadn’t visited in at least a year. Bound for Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., Andrews said he was in for a surprise when he encountered friends who were not so eager to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

“One of the families I stayed with was a man that I had pastored with many years ago. He is extremely smart, and his wife is extremely smart. Their children, who are now adults and have kids of their own, are extremely smart. They are anti-vaxxers,” Andrews said. “We had about a four-hour discussion that started as an argument. Then I just started listening because I realized I wasn’t going to change their minds, and they weren’t going to change mine.

The “anti-vaxxer” movement, combined with a general distrust of the COVID-19 vaccine, could keep this country from reaching herd immunity, and is part of the reason why people still need to remain cautious when in close quarters or in large groups. The COVID-19 pandemic came amidst a backdrop of growing anti-vaxxer sentiments, many of whom have convincing arguments. That, Andrews said, is unfortunate because the science of how the vaccines were developed is being ignored.

 “There are some real concerns and then there is the political element of it that is so dangerous to our country. It’s a shame that we have people with legitimate concerns mixed in with a large group of people who just won’t get the vaccine because they think that’s politically correct.

“The science that was required to produce these vaccines has taken years to develop,” Andrews continued. “It’s not like they were magically invented in the first part of the epidemic. The procedures for building these vaccines have been years in development. The FDA, in deciding to grant emergency use authorization, kept the review process intact. In other words, the FDA looked at this data as if it was any other drug. The pharmaceutical companies did huge trials even before the vaccines were administered to the population as a whole. There were tens of thousands of people who were part of the clinical trials to develop these vaccines, and the FDA reviewed that data with the same diligence that they would review data for a drug for full approval. I’m very confident that these vaccines are as safe as any.  Pfizer and Moderna have applied to FDA now for full approval of their respective vaccines

There remain concerns surrounding the Johnson & Johnson, single-dose vaccine. There have been rare reports (fewer than one in a hundred thousand) of women of child-bearing potential who developed blood clots after taking the vaccine.  

“While direct causation has not been demonstrated, women of childbearing potential should not be offered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, rather, they should receive either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.  The risk of getting COVID far outweighs the risks from the vaccine,” he said.

Regardless, Andrews said it’s nice that people now have a choice of vaccines to take. But it’s still important for the general public to be cautious about the virus.

“I think the key for us moving forward as a group is going to depend on the way that we behave, recognizing that there are still people out there who are not vaccinated and are not immune,” he said. “I think the best way to get through this is to be vaccinated and to go ahead and live our lives like we want, so we reduce the risk of disease. We have reduced it so substantially, that I think fully vaccinated people can go back to normal.”

But Andrews said he is still hesitant about getting on a plane for travel. Traveling on planes has always left him sick with some kind of cold virus, and for the next year or so he plans to mask up and wear eye protection, just to be safe.

“I’m going to be cautious when I’m in crowds of people I don’t know, particularly in compact settings like an airplane or an airport,” he said. “I may do that for a year or more when I fly. If I can wear a mask and not get the cold I usually get when flying, it’s worth it.”

Now that the vaccines have been developed, Andrews, who came out of retirement from an illustrious career in virology and immunology to help develop COVID-19 treatments, said he has shifted his focus to other projects in medicine. But currently he is working on getting a paper published regarding his collaboration’s studies about child polio vaccines’ efficacy against COVID-19.

“I was part of the group that showed the antibodies produced by polio virus recognized SARS CoV-2, and were neutralizing and destroying the virus,” Andrews said. “Some antibodies can just bind to the virus and not really have any effect. But the antibodies that are induced by the polio vaccine recognize an enzyme that is inside the (COVID-19) virus. That’s all we know. But we weren’t able to do the 10,000 patient study that actually shows it (polio vaccine) prevents COVID-19. That’s a tens of millions of dollars investment. But what we’ve shown is consistent with a protective vaccine.”

Additionally, Andrews said he is studying how prescription-strength Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil can improve survival of patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The fatty acids, he said, can reduce the inflammation that ultimately kills COVID-19 patients.

Overall, Andrews said whether it’s the Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, or any other COVID-19 vaccine that comes down the pike, he hopes people who are hesitant about being inoculated consider the scientific process to develop the vaccine, along with their own well thought-out arguments.

“The people I talked to were quite convincing,” he said of his “anti-vaxxer” friends. “I was no longer able to discard their opinion. You could discount their opinion if it was just emotional. But the people I talked to had a well thought out argument. So, that movement is really going to hurt us in terms of reaching herd immunity.”

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