Letter to the Editor

Response to Frazier and Tarescavage’s vaccine requirement column

Jim Lissemore and Medora W. Barnes

We are writing in response to Professors Frazier and Tarescavage’s recent opinion piece in The Carroll News opposing a vaccination requirement for JCU students, faculty and staff. Their piece is a political tract that uses a veneer of science in an attempt to lend their arguments credibility; it has nothing to do with public health. It contains numerous overstatements, claims lacking context, distortions, irrelevant information and outright disinformation. We discuss a few examples of these flawed claims here:

Claim: “COVID-19 vaccines are associated with small but notable risks of side effects that are relevant considerations for younger people.” This statement completely lacks context, such as the risks of COVID-19 to infected younger individuals AND to those to whom they may transmit it, as well as the benefits of the vaccine for younger people. In fact, the authors of the JAMA study they cited explicitly state, “Despite the risks of myocarditis associated with vaccination, the benefits of vaccination likely outweigh risks in children and adolescents. It is estimated that COVID-19 vaccination in males aged 12 to 29 years can prevent 11,000 COVID-19 cases, 560 hospitalizations, 138 intensive care unit admissions and six deaths compared with 39 to 47 expected myocarditis cases.” Other studies reach the same conclusion, that “The benefits of vaccination significantly exceed possible risks” and that “Despite rare cases of myocarditis, the benefit-risk assessment for COVID-19 vaccination shows a favorable balance for all age and sex groups; therefore, COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for everyone ≥12 years of age.”

Claim: “The long-term side effects of the vaccine are not known, which led the FDA to conditionally approve the Pfizer vaccine.” The second part of this claim is patently false and is clearly disinformation. The FDA does not even have a category of conditional approval. The Pfizer vaccine IS fully approved by the FDA; technically Pfizer was granted a “license” to manufacture, distribute and market the vaccine (The FDA approval process is described here). As the FDA does with many biologics (like vaccines) and small molecule drugs to ensure safety of those using these products, Pfizer’s license also included several post-marketing requirements and commitments (PRMs and PRCs), often called Phase 4 trials. PRMs and PRCs are so common that an FDA database lists 359 ongoing post-marketing requirement and commitment studies for approved drugs and biologics as of Oct. 3 (database here).

Claims: “There is emerging documentation showing that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded gain of function research in Wuhan, China in 2014.” And, “A lab-leak theory is now under serious consideration by the scientific community and government officials.” These claims are completely irrelevant to the question of having a vaccination mandate at JCU. Furthermore, the “lab-leak theory” is anything but—there is no evidence whatsoever to support it, so it is simply speculation at this point. In fact, the cited article from Nature explicitly states, “People have made a number of arguments for a lab origin for SARS-CoV-2 that are currently conjecture.” In addition, two recently published in-depth reviews on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 conclude that the most likely origin of the virus is a natural one. Regardless of a final determination of the origin of SARS-CoV-2, its origin has nothing whatsoever to do with whether JCU should require vaccinations to assist in keeping community transmission rates low and students, faculty and staff safer.

Claim: “Those who had COVID-19 have substantially greater immunity to COVID-19 than those who were vaccinated.” This is an overstatement. The authors cite a news article that refers to an unpublished study from Israel that, like all studies, has limitations. In contrast, a different published study presents data supporting the opposite conclusion. The fact is that so far there are few published scientific studies on differences in immunity between vaccinated and previously infected individuals, so this is an area of active research. No single research study is ever definitive, especially studies on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 given that we are less than two years into the pandemic with much still to learn about immunity against this virus.

Claim: “The parasite-stress model of authoritarianism details how pathogens (e.g., infectious diseases like COVID-19) produce authoritarian behaviors that promote obedience at the cost of personal freedoms.” This is a total distortion of the cited paper by Murray, et al., 2013. In fact, Murray, et al. make the opposite conclusion, closing their paper by noting “If indeed parasite stress has unique causal implications for authoritarian governance, then disease-eradication programs may not only have direct consequences for human health, they may also have indirect consequences for individual rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms. (Thornhill and colleagues noted that the democratic transitions in North America and Europe were preceded by dramatic reductions in the prevalence of infectious disease.) There may also be implications for reduced levels of xenophobia and other prejudices that are linked to authoritarian attitudes, and for increased levels of creativity, innovation, and open-mindedness more generally.” It is precisely public health interventions like vaccines that provide social stability for all and that enhance “individual rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms,” including freedom from unnecessary illness and death.

These are but a few examples of the misstatements and distortions in the piece from Professors Frazier and Tarescavage. While we believe it is possible to make a reasonable case against vaccination mandates (see for example, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner), Professors Frazier and Tarescavage have done no such thing. Their irresponsible and misleading opinion piece puts at risk the lives and health of JCU community members, as well as all who interact with our community. The most effective way for us to be together safely in-person is through vaccination. As a community committed to contributing to the public good, we have a shared responsibility to do our part to keep each other safe. We must not let anyone’s flawed arguments distract us from this goal.

Jim Lissemore is Professor of Biology and Co-coordinator of the Program in Population and Public Health at John Carroll University. Medora W. Barnes is Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-coordinator of the Program in Population and Public Health at John Carroll University