As researchers get closer to developing a COVID-19 vaccine, the debate over compulsory immunization to health threats is heating up, with concern that a nationwide vaccine mandate could backfire.
The idea behind vaccine mandates is the notion of “herd immunity,” when protection from a virus is established after a certain percentage of the population has immunity to a virus. Immunity could happen naturally through direct exposure to a virus or artificially through an effective vaccine. Although it is uncertain how many individuals have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, state leaders are discussing the possibility of mandating vaccines.
In a Virginia House of Delegates committee, lawmakers voted on August 25 against three bills that would have limited the state’s authority to mandate vaccines. On August 21, Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver stated he would use his authority to take such an action.
States could also compel vaccines by eliminating exemptions for entrance into public school. In March 2020, Maine voters upheld a new law that blocks philosophical and religious exemptions and in 2019, California lawmakers approved legislation designed to curb medical exemptions.
Mandatory vaccination could also become a condition for employment in many workplaces, according to an article in the National Law Review.
“Can employers mandate a vaccine? Probably,” wrote Ryan N. Parsons, Carrie Hoffman, and Daniel A. Kaplan in the article.
Such a mandate could extend to other areas of life, the authors note, but would likely include medical exemptions.
Safety and Effectiveness
On May 12, 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci testified before Congress about the potential drawbacks of a vaccine.
“So one of the big unknowns is, will it be effective?” Fauci asked lawmakers. “Given the way the body responds to viruses of this type, I’m cautiously optimistic that we will, with one of the [vaccine] candidates, get an efficacy signal.”
Vaccines for viruses like the novel Coronavirus can “backfire,” Fauci said, by causing the virus to mutate and strengthen. Public health officials must proceed with caution to ensure the vaccine doesn’t do more harm than good, Fauci told lawmakers.
A national vaccine mandate is unlikely, Fauci stated during an August 20 video interview at George Washington University.
“You don’t want to mandate and try and force anyone to take a vaccine,” Fauci said. “We’ve never done that. You can mandate for certain groups of people like health workers, but for the general population you can’t.”
The public should heed the words of Fauci, says Twila Brase, R.N., president and co-founder of the Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom, and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which co-publishes Health Care News.
“No coronavirus vaccine has been developed despite earlier coronavirus pandemics,” Brase said. “And given how the 2012 study on coronavirus funded by his department made the virus more virulent in the test animals, the American public should be concerned about the possibility that a COVID-19 vaccine may backfire.”
Individuals or the Public Good
The public is naturally fearful of COVID-19, but calls for vaccine mandates assume vaccines are always safe and effective, says Jane Orient, M.D., executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute.
“There will always be new viruses for which there is no vaccine,” Orient told Health Care News. “Should we get rid of restaurants, bars, all big social events forever? If immunity is the object, natural immunity occurs from exposure.”
“There will be ‘a’ vaccine available, as soon as there is enough pressure on the regulators to approve one,” Orient said. “There are already a lot of candidates. Approval generally takes years. Most vaccines fail in the development process. After decades, there is still no vaccine for AIDS or malaria.”
If a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, there will be enormous pressure to eliminate religious and personal exemptions, Orient said.
“For people who refuse the vaccine, there will be denial of education, employment, or travel,” Orient said. “Children could be taken away from their parents. As with masks, there will be fines and imprisonment for people who object.”
The debate will come down to public health or individual rights, Orient says.
“The question is whether we believe in human sacrifice or not,” Orient said. “Should people be forced to [possibly] endanger themselves, physically or spiritually, for the hypothetical benefit of protecting hypothetical others? Is there any right to bodily integrity, or does our body belong to the state? Everyone must admit that vaccines kill or severely damage some people. Some COVID vaccines being tested make virtually everybody sick. Is there a quantitative threshold?”
Ashley Herzog (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Avon Lake, Ohio.