(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Arcadia High School

Reluctance, division and the COVID-19 vaccine

On December 18, 2020, Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were among the first Americans to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The Vice President reported that he “did not feel a thing.” Congresswoman Pelosi expressed “total confidence in science.” Senator McConnell tweeted that he “received the safe, effective COVID vaccine following continuity-of-government protocols.”

“Vaccines are how we beat this virus,” the Kentucky Republican said.

That same day, thousands more of the public — including my parents, both healthcare workers— were inoculated against the virus that has already taken 1.7 million lives worldwide. But just when the U.S. began its next phase in conquering the outbreak, the nation crossed another grim threshold, passing 300,000 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic. As a new, more transmissible coronavirus strain threatens Europe, the need for an effective vaccine is more evident than ever.

“If we can get the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated by the end of the second or the beginning of the third quarter, by the time we get into mid-fall of 2021, we can be approaching some level of normality,” top coronavirus expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci said.

Dr. Fauci further stipulated that between 75% and 85% of the population will need to get the vaccine to create an immunity umbrella.

Luckily, the scientific challenges — conceiving and creating the vaccine — have been completed thanks to the joint effort between biotech giant Pfizer and a smaller German company, BioNTech.

So why are so many Americans hesitant to welcome what appears to be our salvation in this raging pandemic?

According to polls conducted as recently as late November, a large block of Americans is wary of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the development of which began at the start of 2020. In a Pew Research Poll conducted, only 60% of Americans said that they would “definitely” or “probably” take the vaccine if it were available, with 39% expressing “definitely not” or “probably not.”

Researchers broke down the results by demographic: women are less trusting of the vaccine than men, Whites and Blacks are less likely to immunize than Asians and Hispanics, college-educated adults express greater confidence in the vaccine than high school graduates, and Democrats trust government approval more than Republicans do. 

Polls conducted in December, as the pandemic worsened, did show a decrease in the level of mistrust. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 70% of Americans are now willing to take the vaccine. The demographic disparities, however, are unlikely to change.

Women have long been an important faction within the anti-vaccination movement, striving to find “natural” alternatives to vaccines. Conservatives opposed mandatory vaccinations even before the outbreak, and are now more likely to downplay the pandemic. The better-educated will probably be more informed about the need for mass vaccination. Mistreatments of minorities by the medical profession have fostered vaccine hesitancy in communities of color

The polarization of American politics has led many who had never worried about the safety of vaccines before to have second thoughts about this one. A sizable number of Americans distrust the vaccine out of the fear that government officials have politicized its development; for example, a study in October conducted by Yale found that respondents were less likely to trust a vaccine if President Trump endorsed it.

Creating a vaccine is usually a process that takes years, but Pfizer/BioNTech conceived, produced and obtained regulatory approval for their vaccine in roughly 11 months. It certainly did not help to instill confidence in the vaccine when reports surfaced that the White House threatened to fire Stephen Hahn, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, if he did not accelerate the approval process.

Dr. Fauci initially criticized U.K. approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, saying that the British Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency “rushed” its authorization. He later walked back on his comments. 

“[The American] process is one that takes more time than it takes in the UK. And that’s just the reality,” Fauci told the BBC. “I did not mean to imply any sloppiness even though it came out that way.”

Such speed has critics skeptical of the vaccine’s legitimacy. The question remains: how did we get to it so quickly? 

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine employs a technology never before used in a commercially available vaccine. Instead of weakened or killed viruses, it makes use of messenger ribonucleic acid that provides the instructions for making a protein found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. Our cells take up the injected mRNA and produce the protein, which is harmless on its own, but detected by our immune system and elicits the production of antibodies that specifically attack this protein. If our immune system ever encounters the actual COVID-19 virus, it will quickly recognize this surface protein and remember how to fight the virus, before it has a chance to cause a serious illness. 

Although new to the marketplace, the technology is by no means new to scientists. Long before COVID-19 was around, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Pennsylvania were already researching mRNA vaccines to combat SARS and MERS, both illnesses caused by coronaviruses that are cousins of the COVID-19 virus.

BioNTech was already partnered with Pfizer in the development of an mRNA flu vaccine. Then the coronavirus came along, providing the perfect opportunity to use this technology. It may seem miraculous that scientists created the COVID-19 vaccine so fast, but in reality, they have been unknowingly working on it for years.

Scientists brought the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to market on a streamlined, but not compromised, timeline. For example, because of the urgency of its need, Pfizer began manufacturing the vaccine in large quantities long before the FDA approved it, with the understanding that the doses would be thrown out if proven unsafe or ineffective.

Although production was sped up, the vaccine was nevertheless rigorously evaluated by the FDA to ensure that it meets the usual standards for safety and efficacy. The vaccine underwent three testing phases before it obtained a green light from the FDA. In November, the final Phase 3 trial showed that the vaccine was safe and 95% effective in recipients of varying ages, races, gender and ethnicity. 

Massive funding from the U.S. government was instrumental in allowing Pfizer to develop, manufacture, and distribute the vaccine at record speed. 

“The tremendous financial support from the U.S. government is a huge reason the COVID-19 vaccine was brought to the public so quickly,” Dr. H. Dirk Sostman, who serves as the executive vice president and chief academic officer of Houston Methodist Hospital said. “First, it allowed a newer, faster vaccine technology to be used. Second, it’s going to expedite vaccine distribution in a way we’ve never seen. Instead of waiting months for millions of doses of a vaccine to be made, it’s taken days to get these doses to hospitals.” 

Dr. Fauci had similar remarks and emphasized the support of the U.S. government.

“We’ve been able to move extremely quickly without sacrificing any safety issues, without cutting corners, and certainly without compromising scientific integrity,” Dr. Fauci said during a live-stream hosted by U.S. News & World Report. 

Although certainly not “anti-vaxxers,” my parents were on the fence about whether or not to get the vaccine when they were offered it a few days after its approval by the FDA. In the end, they decided to get vaccinated, and I think they are glad they did.

There has been a palpable change in the mood of our household since my parents were vaccinated. Although we are nowhere close to abandoning our masks and other precautions that have become the norm, at least we can envision a time where that’s attainable.

No one has been spared the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — we’ve adjusted to living our lives online; we’ve put up with months of cabin fever, isolation, and stress that come with being around our families 24/7; some of us have lost loved ones.

It’s not over yet, but immunization holds the promise of something that seemed impossible only weeks ago: the beginning of the end of the pandemic.