In the autumn of 2020, I volunteered to be in the clinical study for the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine against the Covid-19 virus. At that time, the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak. Most schools were offering only remote learning. Many restaurants were closed or serving only carryout food. Mask mandates were nearly universal and the free life that we had known up to that time was in turmoil.
When I received the call saying that I (and my wife) had been selected to participate in the J&J vaccine clinical trial, there was no hesitation from either of us. We accepted the first date available and excitedly joined the study. We received our one-shot vaccination in early December 2020 with a 50% chance that we received the vaccine versus the placebo, but we were glad to participate. Late that night, we both awoke with mild side effect symptoms (chills, body aches, and, in the morning, fatigue) that subsided within 12 hours. So, we felt encouraged that we both received the live vaccine.
Why would we want to participate in a clinical trial for a vaccine that had never been commercialized previously with unknown potential side effects? Why would we potentially put ourselves at risk taking a vaccine with unknown safety or effectiveness?
Today, several vaccines have been in use globally for a number of months (3 in the US). A recent study cited by USA Today (USA Today by Taylor Avery published 7/12/2021) says that these vaccines have saved 279,000 US lives and prevented 1.25 million hospitalizations in their first six months of use. Yet, upwards of 40% of the US population remains unvaccinated. I am not writing this to be critical of anyone that has made the choice to not get a Covid-19 vaccination, but to just provide a few of my own reasons for being in that first group of individuals to be vaccinated:
- My personal education and knowledge – My graduate studies included full semester courses in both virology and human immunology. So, I learned a bit about how viruses work and how our bodies respond. Vaccines are developed to teach our bodies to build antibodies to components of the virus particles that, when the real virus attacks us, will inactive the ability of the virus to infect us. The mRNA and J&J vaccines do this differently, but both have proven effective in providing this needed immunity. According to Dr. Adam Brady, Infectious Disease Specialist and Chair of the Samaritan Coronavirus Task Force (https://www.samhealth.org/about-samaritan/news-search/2021/02/09/covid-19-vaccine-side-effects-compared-to-other-vaccines) the side effects for the Covid-19 vaccines are greater than those experienced typically for a flu vaccine, but slightly less than you might experience for a shingles vaccination. There are slight risks with any vaccine, but there is no scientific reason why the Covid-19 vaccine should be more risky than any other.
- My work experience in the pharmaceutical industry – I have worked in the pharmaceutical industry for over 40 years. During that time, I have hosted over 100 FDA inspections, provided thousands of communications to FDA, heard hundreds of FDA presentations at meetings, and read thousands of articles by FDA professionals. Though I have not always agreed with FDA individuals, I have never doubted their mission to provide only safe and effective products to consumers. In fact, the one thing that causes them to lose sleep is that they will approve a product that ends up doing more harm than good. They stake their professional reputation and life on the fact that they have done everything possible to protect the consumer. They often talk to industry about how they treat every decisions as though their own kids or grandkids will be using these products. Thus, I KNOW that their approval decisions for these products was based on science, not politics or outside pressures. It is simply not possible that these products could have been approved without adequate safety data. Consider the practicalities of an approval decision of this magnitude. Knowing that hundreds of millions of individuals would take a product and the visibility associated with it, would YOU want to be in a position to approve such a product unless you knew for certain that the data proved its safety? No FDA individual that I have ever known would rush, short-cut, or give less than a full review for such a decision.
- My personal risk/benefit analysis – Life is full of risk versus benefit decisions. When the clinical study vaccine became available, my wife and I were faced with the very real risk of Covid-19 infection (we personally know many individuals that have had Covid-19) versus the minuscule risk of an adverse vaccine reaction. The risk of Covid-19 was undoubtedly higher (let’s say 1 in 100, for example) versus the adverse reaction risk (probably 1 in 1,000,000 or less). To me, it was a no-brainer. On a personal note, a close relative had Covid-19. This individual is about my age with no underlying risk factors. He was severely sick for about 3 weeks and still, one year later, has “long COVID” impact… increased anxiety, lingering cough, etc. Covid-19 presents a very real risk that far outweighed adverse reaction risk.
- My appreciation of living freely – I want to live my life freely, without worrying about undue Covid-19 risks. I knew that if the J&J vaccine worked, it would totally change my ability to do the things I had always done without that underlying fear of catching the virus. Today, we know that our hopes were realized… the vaccine is so effective in preventing the most severe infection that we were quickly able to resume living life without Covid-19 worries. We don’t worry about transmitting Covid-19 to our grandkids. We don’t worry when we eat in a restaurant. We go to concerts. We are experiencing life much like we did before Covid-19. Certainly, there are no guarantees in life. There are rare cases in which individuals that have had the Covid-19 vaccination have been infected, hospitalized, or experienced death. However, that was also always the case with other vaccines, as well. However, it appears that the vaccines prevent over 95% of individuals from contracting a severe case.
- My love for my family – Covid-19 quickly became a killer disease. Stories emerged within weeks of its emergence in the US of otherwise healthy individuals dying from Covid-19. It was especially severe for those with underlying conditions and those over 65 years of age. So, we knew we were in that most vulnerable population of individuals. We have three children and seven grandchildren. To protect them (and, from their perspective, to protect us), getting the vaccine early removed, to a large extent, the possibility of either putting them through the agony of watching our demise OR experiencing a long absence from them while we all quarantine. For all of the reasons noted above, taking the vaccine for us was an easy decision.
So, for those of you that have not yet decided whether to take this vaccine or for those of you resistant, why put yourself through the torture of “never knowing if today is the day” when a simple injection can significantly reduce this worry? As pressure mounts by government agencies, employers, and others, saying “no” to the vaccine may even carry greater personal impact relating to your education, possible career opportunities, or personal freedom. To me, making the decision to live my life as I choose without that ongoing, nagging fear of contracting a potentially fatal illness was an easy one.
Our politicians and news media have made this entire issue a messy one. We have been given mixed messages, contradictory information, shifting science, threats, and political advice about this vaccine. However, at the end of the day, you should rely upon the science (which I believe is unequivocal) and your own risk/benefit analysis, not emotion or fear. Either decision you make has risks, but which is most likely to impact you and those you love more severely? Saying “yes” to this vaccine does NOT mean that you have capitulated to the pressures of others. It simply means that you have done your homework and made the best decision, based on what you know, for you and your family. And, if you still believe that “no” is the best answer for you, I respect that. I simply wanted to share my own personal rationale for the decision I made back in December 2020. Have a great day!