Also in this series:
- Covid Vaccines #2: Can We Trust the Data?
- Covid Vaccines #3: Do They Work?
- Covid Vaccines #4: Are They Safe?
- Covid Vaccines #5: Why It Matters
To those of you who forgot I existed or subscribed because you thought I was a recipe blog, Hi! I still have a year left in seminary, but, for the first time since I started at GPTS, I hope I’ll have the time to start writing semi-regularly again.
As I’ve considered resuming writing, I spent the summer vainly trying to find my way around the elephant in the room: namely, the world’s ongoing thoughtful little chat about vaccination. I have repeatedly talked myself out of discussing it lest I do more harm than good, but after a lot of thought and prayer I have decided to start blogging again by embracing the covid elephant instead of dancing around it.
Let me start by saying that I am fully vaccinated against covid (thank you, Moderna) and I think you probably should be too. But my primary goal here isn’t to prove that vaccination is safe and effective, nor to convince you to get vaccinated. Instead, I have two main hopes.
First, I keep hearing from friends who are genuinely distressed and unsure who to believe about covid and vaccination. I cannot approach that question as a medical researcher or doctor, but then, you probably can’t either. We are both in the position of interested laymen, trying to find the truth in a haze of confusing data and conflicting narratives. And while I’m not a medical professional, I have spent the last 15 years teaching argumentation and research. That doesn’t make me infallible, but I hope it will make my perspective helpful.
Secondly, more than anything else about the past year, I have been heartbroken to see the anger and foolishness from all sides of our public discussions, including within the church. I am increasingly convinced that the controversies of the past year have been a divine test for the American church; a test we have largely failed as we have fallen into opposing camps, each defined by their loudest and least reasonable members while everyone else is afraid to start a potentially explosive conversation. Yet we are unlikely to find either peace or truth if we are scared to talk to each other! God’s tests are often preparatory, and I wonder how we will handle the next complex and divisive issue. Will we show the world what a difference it makes to be indwelt and sanctified by the Spirit of Christ, even in disagreement, or will we disdain those for whom Christ shed his blood? If I don’t change a single mind about vaccination but do help to bring some mutual understanding to a contentious debate, I will be happy and satisfied. (And on that note, please pray for my own wisdom and self-control as I write!)
In my next few posts here, I intend to walk through the analysis and research which led me from a place of considerable skepticism about the new covid vaccines, especially the mRNA ones, to gladly being vaccinated when they became available. In what remains of this post, I will give a quick summary of the arguments for vaccination, but I think most of us are pretty familiar with those already. Therefore, in following posts I will discuss the main arguments I’ve seen against vaccination, and why I have not found them persuasive.
As I said, I don’t pretend to be a medical professional. I also don’t pretend to have seen and evaluated every argument against covid vaccines, even at a lay level. Therefore, I would genuinely welcome anyone who wants to point me toward arguments you have found compelling. I pledge that I will do my best to evaluate each argument. If I find my mind changed in whole or part, I will say so here.
(A quick logistical note: Some of you are going to read this because you are subscribed to my blog by email. I’m going to let this first article go out in the regular email update, then I’ll pause those emails for any remaining posts on this topic. I don’t want to suddenly spam everyone with “all covid, all the time” after you subscribed for whatever you subscribed for back when the world was young and we all would have assumed COVID-19 was the name of R2-D2’s girlfriend.)
The Case for Covid Vaccination
One difficulty in talking about the covid vaccines is that there are a million arguments for and against them, so it is impossible to address everything at once. In this first post, I intend to only sketch a brief argument for covid vaccination, largely omitting links to supporting studies or evidence. If you don’t already agree with me, you probably won’t find this persuasive. I am not trying to persuade. This is just a quick outline of how I see the question and why I have come to the conclusions I have. The next few posts will dig into the support for what I’m summarizing here.
1. Covid is real and dangerous.
It is unclear where covid originated. It seems likely that it came from an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab performing gain-of-function research, but for the narrow question of whether vaccination is wise, “where” isn’t especially important. What is important is that covid is extremely transmissible and moderately lethal, especially for the elderly. It certainly isn’t Ebola or smallpox, but its infectiousness makes it dangerous enough to have killed over 600,000 Americans and millions worldwide. This emphatically isn’t “just the flu!” There was a dear older man who lived a few houses down from us who would run out to talk to our girls every time we were out walking; his widow can tell you that covid is a real disease that kills real people.
2. Vaccines work.
Polio. Smallpox. Measles. Whooping cough. Diseases which took millions of lives are now largely relegated to history books because medical science discovered a way to prep our immune systems to defeat viruses before they could kill us.
3. The covid vaccines have been thoroughly tested*.
The first mRNA covid vaccine was developed by February 2020. Why weren’t they authorized for use until December? Because they had to go through the same process that every other vaccine goes through before approval. It is true that, because of the magnitude of the pandemic, some of the trial phases were run at the same time instead of sequentially. Animal testing occurred at the same time as human testing, and Phase 2 and Phase 3 testing also ran at the same time.
Running testing phases concurrently meant more risk for trial participants. Animal testing usually comes before human testing to identify potential dangers before the first human is at risk. Phase 2 trials (with fewer people) try to identify dangers before much larger numbers of people receive the treatment in Phase 3 trials. Speeding things up by running some trials at the same time meant there were fewer safeguards for trial participants. However, everyone who participated in the trials did so willingly. Because so many people volunteered, and because covid was so widespread, researchers were able to quickly accumulate enormous amounts of data on vaccine efficacy and side effects. Though the process was sped up by running trials at the same time, each approved vaccine met the full requirements for animal trials and all three human trial phases.
It is easy for forget that the three vaccines approved for use in the US emerged from a crowded field of over 150 different covid vaccine candidates. Other manufacturers like Merck (which dropped their efforts) and Sanofi (which has struggled in Phase 3 trials) weren’t less interested in profiting from vaccine sales. They simply weren’t able to produce the safety and efficacy data needed for FDA approval of an emergency use authorization.
During the trials, over 70,000 people received the vaccines and were carefully tracked for months to evaluate not only whether they contracted covid but also whether they experienced harmful side effects of any sort. Furthermore, at this point roughly 170,000,000 Americans have been fully vaccinated, many of them months ago, each one adding to our store of information on the vaccines’ efficacy and risks. (In another post, I will look at whether dangerous side effects are being ignored or suppressed.) We have a wealth of data on the safety of covid vaccines—much more so than for many medical treatments which have been around for decades, but which have not been given to half the population of the country during that time.
There is one important caveat here. I put an asterisk by “thoroughly tested” above because, obviously, we have no data on covid vaccine safety after five years, or ten years, or twenty, because the vaccines have existed for less than two. However, we should bear in mind that we similarly lack long-term data on the effects of covid after five years, or ten years, or twenty. Just as Lyme disease and other illnesses can linger for a lifetime, sometimes with debilitating effects, there is good reason to think that some of covid’s strange harms to body systems ranging from the brain to the circulatory system may persist as well. Given a choice between the unknowable long-term effects of a vaccine developed by medical doctors working under the eyes of the world, versus the unknowable long-term effects of a novel bat virus which was possibly enhanced in a Chinese lab and has killed millions of people, I’m inclined to go with the vaccine.
4. The covid vaccines are effective.
No vaccine is 100% protective. They prepare your immune system for a viral onslaught, but someone with naturally weaker immunity or who is exposed to an unusually large viral load may still be infected. However, the vaccines have consistently performed beyond what was originally hoped, hitting roughly 70-90 percent efficacy against symptomatic cases and doing even better at preventing serious infections leading to hospitalization or death.
Over time, the antibodies stimulated by vaccines dissipate, leaving behind T cells and B cells which remember the virus and are ready to ramp up defenses and produce new antibodies in case of future infection. However, because the antibodies cannot remain in our blood forever, vaccinated people gradually become more likely to catch a mild case of covid before their immune response fully kicks in. Similarly, the enormous viral load from the delta variant is more likely to create a mild or moderate case of covid in vaccinated people before their immune response can fight it back.
However, the latest data from hospitals across the US and the world continues to paint a remarkably consistent picture, as vaccinated people still have a substantially lower chance of contracting covid and an even lower chance of ending up hospitalized or dead. Much of the media continues to sensationalize covid risks in reporting on breakthrough infections, but a careful look at the numbers tells a different story, even in countries like Israel which are often cited as examples of waning immunity. (I’ll take a more thorough look at these numbers in a future post.)
5. Inaction is a choice.
We each have a responsibility before God to love our neighbors and be wise stewards of our own lives and health, and because of covid’s high transmissibility, our choice is between getting vaccinated or probably getting covid. I’m not going to claim to be absolutely certain that getting vaccinated is best. However, this is not the sort of choice where certainty is possible in either direction. I am confident that the available information, carefully considered, strongly supports vaccination as the better option of the two we have.
If there is good reason to believe vaccination is safer than getting covid, it would seem that responsible stewardship of our own lives calls for vaccination.
Our choices about vaccination affect our neighbors as well. Some people cannot get vaccinated for health reasons, some are too young, and others have weakened immune systems which make the vaccine less effective. Furthermore, as I said above, no vaccine is 100% protective, even for the healthy. Vaccines dramatically increase our immunity, but breakthrough infections of the vaccinated will always happen. Decisions we make which increase or decrease our likelihood of spreading covid to others matter for those who cannot be vaccinated, for those whose ill-health makes their immunity less durable, and for those who may get sick despite vaccination.
None of this means you’re bad or stupid if you haven’t been vaccinated. Frankly, depending on what information or misinformation you have seen, you might be foolish to get vaccinated based on what you think you know. But that means we need to take a careful look at who we’re trusting. In the next few posts, I’ll survey the best anti-vax arguments I have seen and explain why I have not found them persuasive, even though many seem to be valid at first glance.
Addendum: 62% with Blood Clots?
I had intended to end this first article here, but then a family member asked my opinion about a recent vaccine warning which has been circulating on widely read vaccine-skeptic sites. It is a good example of the sort of claims which I keep finding when I have researched covid vaccine concerns: plausible at first glance, but unsupported if we dig deeper.
Here is the original video interview on Facebook. It is adequately summarized in this article. In the interview, Dr. Charles Hoffe, a family practice physician from British Columbia, warns that the mRNA vaccines are causing tiny blood clots throughout capillary vessels in the lungs and elsewhere. He explains that the spike proteins which the mRNA is intended to produce end up lining the capillaries and then attracting platelets which form tiny, dangerous clots too small to detect with typical tests. Dr. Hoffe says he detected these clots using a “D-dimer test” which “shows a recent blood clot and doesn’t show anything else but a recent blood clot.” Using this D-dimer test, Dr. Hoffe says he detected blood clots in 62% of his vaccinated patients.
Dr. Hoffe’s technical explanation of what is happening (spike proteins jutting from capillary walls to attract platelets and form clots) is simply beyond my ability as a layman to evaluate. This fact check quotes a WHO-affiliated vaccinologist dismissing it as nonsense because any spike protein which may be present is far too small to do what Dr. Hoffe claims. Is the vaccinologist merely speaking from bias? Perhaps. Is Dr. Hoffe a general practitioner speculating beyond his area of expertise? Perhaps. I’m not qualified to judge the claim itself.
But I am qualified to check what a D-dimer test actually does. It is a common test which is described on dozens of hospital and lab test sites—not fact checks trying to refute Dr. Hoffe, just information for patients and doctors describing what the test is for.
According to Dr. Hoffe, a positive D-dimer test proves the presence of blood clots. According to every single description of a D-dimer test I could find, that is not accurate. A negative D-dimer test probably means you don’t have a blood clot, but a positive D-dimer test might mean you have a blood clot, or it might indicate you have had a recent surgery, pregnancy, infection, liver disease, heart disease, high lipid or triglyceride levels, or are simply elderly. In fact, the president of the French Society of Vascular Medicine says vaccination itself could produce a positive D-dimer test because it creates a mild inflammatory response, which would be picked up by the test. This lab test site specifically warns, “D-dimer is a sensitive test but has a poor specificity” and says it should not be used to confirm a diagnosis.
Even if we (unjustifiably) assume that every medical expert disagreeing with Dr. Hoffe is hopelessly biased, the biggest problem is his own explanation. The only piece of empirical evidence that Dr. Hoffe offers cannot support the claim he makes. Though he says the test “shows a recent blood clot and doesn’t show anything else but a recent blood clot” (4:10 in the video I linked above), that is not how it works. He is relying on a test which could be detecting inflammation from any number of things, including the recent vaccination itself, and assuming it can only point to blood clots. We could try to rescue his argument by wondering if some of the positive test results were from blood clots, but there is literally no evidence that is the case.
Dr. Hoffe does not appear to have ever described the number of people he tested, their ages, their health, or anything else about his methodology. If we cannot trust him to accurately describe the test upon which he bases his explosive claim, how can we trust the claim itself? And if someone repeats Dr. Hoffe’s claims without even mentioning the limitations of the D-dimer test, we should ask ourselves what else they might be omitting.