US scientists worry as more say they’ll refuse COVID-19 vaccine

New York Post

Tara Granger, 36, has worked as a nurse for two decades in Suffolk County, NY, and she and her two children have been vaccinated every year.

“Drugs are my life,” she says. “It’s what I learned in school.”

But she’s been questioning the promised upcoming vaccine for COVID-19, in large part because of what she’s witnessed firsthand about the financial incentives for vaccines.

“It scares me that I got so many free lunches and free dinners because I pushed the flu vaccine,” Granger says. “What am I going to get when I push a COVID vaccine?”

Granger got sick from the coronavirus earlier this summer and said she did “the opposite of what people said to do. I took my supplements and vitamins, and didn’t go to the hospital to be put on a ventilator and die. I was smart enough to say, ‘My immune system can fight this, I just have to find the right way to do it.’ ”

Her job will require her to recommend the COVID vaccine when it’s available, but Granger said she won’t personally be getting it.

“The vaccine isn’t something we need, even if it is safe,” she says. “People want an easy solution and they think this is it. But it isn’t.”

She’s not the only one with misgivings. A Pew Research poll from late September showed that about half of US adults (51 percent) wouldn’t get a COVID-19 vaccine if it was available today — a big drop from the 72 percent who said they’d get one back in May.

Complicating things even more: This past week, two major drug manufacturers halted their vaccine trials because of safety concerns.

It’s made matters all the more confusing for Rob Holmes, 50, of Marina del Rey, Calif., who said he gets an annual flu shot despite his wife’s reluctance. “I’m starting to think I’m the crazy one,” he tells The Post.

Suffolk County, NY, nurse Tara Granger has always had her two kids vaccinated. She’s already gotten COVID-19 and recovered just fine at home. She’s not sure she’d get a vaccine for the virus now if one were available.John Roca

For the first time, he hasn’t gotten a flu shot, and he said he’s “still on the fence” about whether he’ll get a COVID vaccine when it becomes available.

Claudia Torres, a 28-year-old stay-at-home mom and blogger from Miami, feels the same. She said all of her kids are up-to-date on recommended vaccines. “I’m not an anti-vaxxer or think COVID-19 is a hoax,” she says. “But I just don’t want the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Even the rich and powerful are expressing doubt. Elon Musk said in a podcast interview in late September that he won’t be getting a vaccine because he’s “not at risk for COVID, nor are my kids.”

The anti-vax movement is nothing new — in 2019, the World Health Organization listed “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top-ten threats to global health — but the growing distrust of a vaccine that, at this point, is only hypothetical is a rare cultural phenomenon.

Scott Ratzan, a physician and medical misinformation expert at the City University of New York and Columbia University, says anti-COVID vaccine sentiment is the result of “a massive assault on trust in government, in science and in public-health authorities.”

Moderna, in Cambridge, Mass., has developed an experimental treatment for COVID-19, but approval could be more than a year away.Boston Globe via Getty Images

The misinformation has mostly been spread online, thanks to social media and the controversial documentary “Plandemic,” in which discredited virologist Judy Mikovits claims a hypothetical COVID vaccine would “kill millions.”

“Throw in QAnon and people’s increasing impatience with the effect of the disease on their lives and livelihoods, and you have fertile ground to sow anti-science propaganda,” says Ratzan. “It’s been like manna from heaven for hardcore anti-vaxxers.”

The usual anti-vax tropes — religious objections, concerns that vaccines cause autism — aren’t behind most COVID-19 vaccine concerns. According to an August survey from STAT and the Harris Poll, 78 percent of Americans are worried that a COVID-19 vaccine is being influenced more by politics than science.

It’s a largely bipartisan opinion: 72 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats don’t trust a vaccine pushed by politicians, regardless of their party affiliation.

Politicians giving public-health advice during the COVID-19 crisis has “led to public confusion both about what is truth and what is fiction,” says Nancy Kass, a professor of Bioethics and Public Health at Johns Hopkins. “It’s turned COVID into a political disease rather than a public-health problem.”

If Donald Trump tells us we should take [a COVID-19 vaccine], I’m not taking it.

 – Sen. Kamala Harris at the Oct. 7 vice-presidential debate

The Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed,” a $10 billion initiative that the president has compared to the Manhattan Project, calls for a streamlined process to develop a coronavirus vaccine, with the end goal of distributing 300 million doses by January 2021.

It’s an ambitious project that has alarmed instead of reassured many Americans.

“Politics has clearly been inserted into scientific discovery these past few months,” says Rohan Arora, 19, an environmental health activist based in Washington, DC. “I’m really skeptical about whether these vaccines are being streamlined by credible researchers. Considering that this is an election year, it’s clear politicians have a vested interest in coming up with any solution to end this pandemic, even if the solution is just an ineffective PR facade.”

Although the White House approved new FDA guidelines that would extend the time frame for a vaccine’s clinical trials, Trump railed against the FDA on Twitter on Oct. 6, calling the updated guidelines “another political hit job!”

“Trump’s blatant disregard for doing the right thing once again is affecting the health of Americans,” says Crystal Hawkins, 34, a labor and birth RN in Philadelphia, who describes herself as a “pro-vaxxer.”

“It’s clear that a safe and efficacious vaccine is not as important to the president as having bragging rights for developing a vaccine during his presidency,” she adds.

Much of the anti-Trump, anti-vaccine backlash has been stirred by members of the Democratic Party. “If Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, if the doctors, tell us that we should take it, then I’ll be first in line to take it,” Sen. Kamala Harris declared at the Oct. 7 vice-presidential debate when asked whether or not she would get a COVID-19 vaccine. “But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it — then I’m not taking it.”

Rita Palma — here with her husband and three sons in Blue Point, LI –says sign-ups at her anti-vaccine group are way up in the pandemic. “COVID is God’s gift to the vaccine-choice movement,” she says.Stefano Giovannini

Comments like these delight Rita Palma, founder of the anti-vax group My Kids, My Choice.

“COVID is God’s gift to the vaccine-choice movement,” she says. “It’s woken up so many people and put us in a national spotlight. People are finally questioning and having doubt about vaccines.”

Palma, 57, of Blue Point, NY, launched her Facebook group in 2006, after her petition to have her children exempted from vaccinations for religious reasons was denied by her school district. “That’s when I started doing my research,” she tells The Post. “I looked at the vaccine ingredients. The more I learned, the more objections I had.”

But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising questions about when a vaccine would become available —and if it would be compulsory — that Palma started to hear from people not typically drawn to the anti-vax movement.

“I’ve been getting so many e-mails and texts from people,” she says.

The Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” initiative has an end goal of distributing 300 million doses of a vaccine by January 2021.Bloomberg via Getty Images

In just the last month and a half, she’s seen a membership bump of 3,000 people at My Kids, My Choice — about a 25 percent increase.

“They don’t want the COVID vaccine,” Palma says. “Even people who vaccinate their families are like, ‘Oh, no, I’m not taking that one.’ ”

Fears over a fast-tracked inoculation aren’t entirely without historical precedent. In 1976, a new strain of H1N1 virus suspected of being genetically similar to the “Spanish flu” of 1918 sickened hundreds of soldiers at Fort Dix, NJ. Then-President Gerald Ford, looking for good press in an election year, launched an ambitious campaign to, in his words, vaccinate “every man, woman, and child in the United States.”

Though the vaccine was still in early clinical trials, Congress passed a bill authorizing the rushed early rollout, which came with the slogan “Roll Up Your Sleeve, America.” But when 35 elderly people died after getting vaccinated, and hundreds developed a rare neurological disorder, vaccination numbers plummeted and the effort was dubbed a “fiasco” by some journalists.

It isn’t just politicians suspected of using a COVID vaccine for personal gain. Drugmakers have also come under scrutiny. There are hundreds of vaccines in a pre-clinical testing phase, but only four — those run by Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca — are currently in Phase 3 clinical trials.

COVID and healthcare came up during the vice presidential debate with Kamala Harris and Mike Pence.UPI

But there have been problems in recent weeks. AstraZeneca, which is developing its vaccine with the University of Oxford, paused its study in early September after a participant developed severe neurological symptoms consistent with transverse myelitis, a rare inflammation of the spinal cord. And on Monday, Johnson & Johnson halted its trials because of an “unexplained illness” in a participant; Eli Lilly did the same on Tuesday.

Not to mention, the majority of Americans think it’s too much progress too soon. In the Pew Research poll, 78 percent believe that vaccines are being developed too fast, before their safety and effectiveness are fully understood.

“Some people might assume malicious intent on the part of scientists when they really are just struggling to keep up with a very complex situation,” says David Broniatowski, an associate professor at George Washington University who’s published several studies on vaccine misinformation. “Scientists don’t want to say the wrong thing and will often stay silent, or provide facts and statistics without context, leaving vaccine opponents to fill the vacuum.”

Rob Holmes suspects that at least the first round of COVID vaccines won’t be trustworthy.

“Microsoft ships buggy products all the time, then debugs after the guinea pigs — the consumers — make them aware of the flaws,” he says. “I don’t believe the pharmaceutical community works much differently.”

President Gerald Ford is injected with a swine flu vaccine by White House physician Dr William Lukash in 1976.Getty Images

The declining number of people willing to get a COVID vaccine is a real concern. According to Johns Hopkins University, between 70 percent and 90 percent of Americans would need to have coronavirus antibodies to reach herd immunity. A vaccine won’t do much good “unless we have a significant number of the population immunized,” says Ratzan.

The urgency has led some researchers to make recommendations that only add fuel to the anti-vax fire. On Oct. 1, the New England Journal of Medicine published a paper suggesting that those in the public unwilling to take a COVID vaccine voluntarily “should incur a penalty” — and a “relatively substantial” one, including “employment suspension or stay-at-home orders.”

Kass, at Johns Hopkins, admits that communication about COVID prevention and vaccination has been “fairly disastrous from a public-health perspective.” The solution, she says, might involve changing not the message but the messenger.

“When there was the measles outbreak among an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn recently, part of the response strategy similarly involved finding trusted messengers from within the community to spread the message that a measles vaccine could save their kids’ lives,” she says.

But for Palma, there is nothing that will change her mind about a COVID vaccine.

“Even if God himself came down from the heavens and said it will do you no harm, I’d say ‘No thank you,’ ” she says. “I believe in a whole different way of taking care of the body. I believe in healthy foods, sunshine, love, Earth connection, exercise. I just don’t believe good health can ever be found in an injection.”


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