On Vaccines and the Virus

Isn’t it typical? Just as Covid-19 vaccines start rolling out, new conspiracy theories grind out claims that they are unsafe. The purveyors of paranoia are having a field day.

Quite common is the claim that they must be unsafe because they were produced too quickly. After all, a hundred years ago they found no cure for the even more deadly Great Influenza! Well, folks, medical science has advanced exponentially in the last century. Moreover, the researchers had already a scientific basis: Covid-19 is the latest in a series of corona-type viruses (and vaccines) that have been well-researched.

But, you may say, have they been adequately tested – or is Big Pharma once again using us as human guinea pigs? While roll out has been speeded up, it is false to claim they are untested. No drug nowadays goes on the market without theoretical, animal and human tests. And at every stage, these tests go through rigid ethical scrutiny. I have been part of one such research ethics committee for the last fifteen years and I can say from experience that these processes are strictly adhered to.

But, you may add, Big Pharma tests drugs in developing countries where such oversight is lacking. Not necessarily so: South African ethics committees, for example, are stricter than many in Europe or North America. (And less developed countries, where there are fewer restraints, tend to lack the infrastructure for proper research). Strict research practice protocols are always in place. Research on human subjects is closely monitored after clearance is given. Deviation from protocols are grounds for suspending or stopping research. Any possible side effect – ‘serious adverse effects’ – can lead to suspension or cessation of clinical drug trials.

Bad practices have happened in the past. The mantra of research committees everywhere is the same, however: Not on our Watch!

Another objection from the rumour mongers is that we don’t know the vaccines’ side effects. This is true if they say all side effects. During drug trials, certain side effects are discovered in almost every case. These are noted and, if it is judged that the good results exceed the side effects, the drugs are rolled out – with specific warnings about side effects. Since medicine is not a precise science, since human physiology is infinitely complex, some unforeseen and undocumented side effects may occur in a handful of cases (which are then added to the ‘warning list’ on subsequent issues of the drug). Any drug or vaccine’s effect is whether it helps the greatest number of patients while offering reasonable warning of adverse effects.

The present global medical crisis demands swift action to save as many people possible. Though the production of vaccines has been sped up, it is highly unlikely that strict research standards have been abandoned.

What, then, of those who may refuse vaccination? From a libertarian perspective, they are welcome to refuse – but should be permanently isolated from the rest of us. I know that’s harsh, but this is, to adapt a term slightly from military ethics, a supreme medical emergency.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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