In My Words: COVID vaccine may provide an end to this pandemic

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor Dave Gammon makes the case for the COVID-19 vaccine. The column was published by the Burlington Times-News, the Greensboro News & Record, the Lexington Dispatch and the Asheboro Courier-Tribune.

By Dave Gammon

Millions of Americans have already been sick with COVID. Hundreds of millions more are sick of COVID. A solution for both COVID and COVID fatigue is tantalizingly close. Hello, vaccines!

Dave Gammon, professor of biology

According to national surveys, six in ten of us say they plan to get the vaccine, which comes close to the population percentage needed for ‘herd immunity.’ I hope to convince fence-sitters also to give the vaccine a shot.

Are you tired of relentless bad news about overcrowded hospitals and rising death counts? Are you sick of public health professionals telling you how to live your personal life? Are you exhausted from having your kids at home instead of school? Do you miss seeing your elderly relatives? Do you feel drained from hearing endless conspiracy theories about COVID-19? Are you disgusted by the needless cultural and political baggage with wearing face masks?

Let’s end this thing.

The ongoing ugliness of the pandemic has revealed deep-seated divisions across American society. COVID vaccines represent a truly bipartisan solution. Thank you, President Trump, for spearheading Operation Warp Speed, which produced the fastest vaccine in a century. Thank you, President-Elect Biden, for pledging to distribute the COVID vaccine as quickly and equitably as possible. Our society needs more solutions that unite us rather than divide us.

As a scientist I would love to believe compelling datasets shape everyone’s behavior. But as a science teacher I know most folks have only passing interest in abstract concepts such as statistical analyses from clinical trials, or scientific models that describe how molecules function within the immune system. The fact is, we are more likely to be influenced by the values and beliefs of people we trust.

To those willing to take the vaccine, please share your decision widely. Tell your friends, your family, your followers on social media, your congregation, your coworkers, and your employees.

If you are a science wonk like me, then you know the results of recent vaccine trials by US pharmaceutical companies were stunning. Sample sizes were immense – 44,000 for the Pfizer study, and 30,000 for Moderna’s study.

Effect sizes were impressive – far better than most public health experts anticipated. During the three-month-long clinical trials, a few vaccinated individuals still got infected. But for every one of these individuals, about 10 to 20 individuals in the placebo group got the ‘Rona.

Both studies were double-blind, meaning neither participants nor health professionals administering the drugs knew whether they had a vaccine or a placebo. It is therefore impossible to escape the strong conclusion that vaccines protect people against the coronavirus.

Both studies took racial diversity and age seriously when enrolling participants, so we can be confident the results will apply well to senior citizens and African Americans, not just young Caucasians who are already healthy. The most serious side effect so far has been fatigue, similar to the fatigue occasionally experienced by recipients of the flu vaccine.

Uncertainties still remain. Both studies used a new type of vaccine technology based on genetic material known as mRNA. Although we know the mRNA vaccines were safe over the three months of the clinical trials, long-term data need to be collected. Vaccine trials have not been conducted on children yet, although we have no reason to think kids will respond differently. So far in Great Britain, two individuals experienced an allergic reaction to the COVID vaccine. Whatever problems result from administering COVID vaccines will need to be balanced against the benefits of those vaccines.

Despite these uncertainties, all preliminary signs are positive. To those who remain skeptical, I hope you will respect those who feel differently. I also hope you reconsider your conclusions if you encounter new information. I promise to do the same.

The finish line for this pandemic is beginning to materialize. Hopefully by this time next year we can celebrate with crowded parties at which we toss unwanted facemasks into a raging bonfire. Look for me there. I’ll be part of the group hug in the middle.

Dave Gammon is a professor of biology at Elon. Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.