ABOUT HALF OF AMERICANS said they would take the coronavirus vaccine, according to a recent survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Forty percent of black respondents and 33 percent of all adults under the age of 45 said they would not take the vaccine. Experts estimate the disease will start to come under control when 60 percent to 80 percent of the population is immunized.
AP’s survey found that about half of those who said they would not take the vaccine worried it would infect them. But that’s impossible for the first two vaccines to hit the U.S. market, since mRNA vaccines do not contain the virus.
During the summer, Dr. Reynold Verret, the president of Xavier University, the only historically black Catholic university, heard from his doctor that the Pfizer trial didn’t include many African Americans.
Verret, an immunologist, joined the phase 3 trial publicly, wanting to change that 40 percent of black Americans who say they won’t take the vaccine. Some of that mistrust is based on a long history of medical experiments performed on African Americans. The most well known is the Tuskegee study, a 40-year study on several hundred African American men. Researchers told them they’d receive medical treatment for syphilis, but they received placebos instead. Many died from illnesses that the researchers intentionally left untreated.
Verret mostly joined to see the vaccine’s efficacy, which varies more based on genetic background, he explained. Most people at Xavier know someone who has died of the virus, said Verret. He also lost family members to the virus: “I understood it was worth the risk.”
Dan Moore, 33, is a copywriter for a video game merchandise company in Tucson, Ariz. When the pandemic began, he thought experts overblew its severity. He began following the excess mortality statistics to prove his point. The numbers sobered him instead. In June he signed up for Moderna’s phase 3 trial in Tucson.
“I hate the lockdowns,” he said. “The vaccine for me is the way out of that.”
He and his wife, who are Catholic, haven’t been to Mass in about eight months, his baby daughter hasn’t been baptized, nor have his or his wife’s grandmothers met their great-granddaughter.
“I work at a company that sells video game merchandise, not the most socially critical mission, so it’s good to feel I did something of some value,” he said with a laugh. “Selfishly, I want to watch sports, I want to go to concerts, I want to sit inside a Wendy’s and read a book.”
But before he took the doses he needed to do research. Moore’s uncle had a swine flu vaccine in 1976 when there was a rush to vaccinate the nation. He had a Guillain-Barré reaction, in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, but recovered. Moore also looked up the “Cutter incident,” where the first batches of the polio vaccine accidentally contained the live virus. He concluded an mRNA vaccine wouldn’t have such problems: “You get cold feet after you sign up for something like that, naturally.”
He went forward with the two doses in the summer, and none of his vaccine-skeptical family members criticized his participation in the trial: “Because I made this decision myself it’s, ‘Oh, that’s a cool thing you’re doing.’” He thinks skepticism about a new vaccine will melt away as people gradually see others around them getting the vaccine.
Dr. Tim Millea, in Davenport, Iowa, was working in a hospital during the 1976 swine flu outbreak and remembered seeing several patients with the Guillain-Barré reaction to the vaccine. He is a member of the Catholic Medical Association and on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ panel to consider the pro-life implications of the new vaccines. He examined the data and found the rate of Guillain-Barré was no higher than before the swine flu epidemic.
“This association by coincidence is something we have to look out for as well,” he said. “God bless [skeptics] for asking questions … [but] I don’t think we’re wrong. There are enough checks and balances in the approval process. People in the FDA, DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], and the CDC, they’ve been in this rodeo before.”