Now that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has received final approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), employers should have a smooth pathway towards imposing vaccine mandates that protect their workers and their business from a lethal virus. Nevertheless, it will take a combination of patience and courage to overcome the collective hysteria that has engulfed tens of millions of Americans in COVID-19 vaccine refusal.
The FDA’s announcement on the Pfizer approval has provided employers with ample support for imposing vaccine mandates.
The Pfizer vaccine, marketed under the name “Comirnaty (koe-mir’-na-tee), has received final approved for ages 16 and up, which covers the bulk of the workforce. Ages 12 to 15 can continue to receive Comirnaty under its emergency use authorization. That covers practically every child or teenager who does odd jobs for the neighbors, helps in the family business, or holds a youth work permit.
In a press release, the FDA took a dig, though a mild one, at vaccine refusers who claim that the vaccine is untested. “While millions of people have already safely received COVID-19 vaccines, we recognize that for some, the FDA approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated,” explained Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D. (emphasis added).
The “untested” argument may have washed when the Pfizer vaccine was first made available last December, though the accusation is a slap in the face to the thousands of volunteers who participated in tests leading up to the authorization. Millions more have received it on an emergency basis. If that’s not sufficient testing, what is? Nevertheless, the FDA anticipates that final approval will make the difference for many vaccine refusers.
The FDA’s optimism may well be justified. However, it is all but certain that millions of refusers will remain unswayed.
In the announcement of the approval, the FDA described its rigorous approval process in excruciating detail. Unfortunately, many of the very people who should read the FDA’s press release will not even know it exists.
If anything, vaccine refusers will probably zero in on the fact that FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock holds her position in an acting capacity and is therefore not the “real” head of the agency.
That argument would ignore Dr. Woodcock’s professional credentials and long history with the FDA, which dates back to 1986. She assumed the “Acting” title in January, after Trump’s appointee, Stephen Hahn, stepped down.
Continuity in leadership should have been a priority during the COVID outbreak, except that during Hahn had no previous experience of any substance in food or drug analysis. He was clearly unfit to establish public trust in the FDA’s vaccine approval process. During his brief tenure, he compiled a reputation for promoting unproven treatments including hydroxychloroquine.
Unfortunately, Woodcock also brings some baggage to the trust table. She is reportedly not in the running for the permanent Commissioner title when her term expires in November, possibly due to controversy over her recent decision to approve a treatment for Alzheimer’s against the conclusions of an advisory panel.
The next permanent FDA Commissioner will have their work cut out for them, no matter how many COVID-19 vaccines receive final approval.
The main challenge will be stemming the tide of inaccurate information and outright lies that receive widespread attention through today’s media.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, medical professionals had become alarmed over the power of self-professed experts — including those with medical degrees — to sway millions through television appearances and other media.
Some observers also believe that a tipping point on the influence of quackery occurred long before the advent of the internet and social media. In 1998, the prestigious journal The Lancet published an article by the former physician Andrew Wakefield connecting the common measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to autism. The article was later revealed as fraudulent and The Lancet withdrew it in 2010, but the damage was done.
A new public opinion study currently under consideration for publication by the research organization Plos One indicates that the 1998 Wakefield article was indeed highly influential. Though refusal of the MMR vaccine was and continues to be rare in the U.S., the researchers found evidence that the article sparked significant negative attitudes toward the MMR vaccine among the public.
The new study, titled “Quantifying The Effect of Wakefield et al. (1998) on Skepticism about MMR Vaccine Safety in the U.S.,” cites television and radio as the pre-Internet influencers that amplified falsehoods in the Wakefield article, exposing millions to fraud well beyond the rarified audience of The Lancet itself.
Multiply that by millions more, and you have the age of social media and the Facebook effect. In particular, critics of Facebook say the company continues to shoulder much of the blame for circulating misinformation and damaging lies about vaccine safety, despite taking some steps to clean up the discourse.
On the bright side, the new study on the Wakefield fraud indicates that vaccine mandates can far outweigh popular opinion about vaccine safety. Here in the U.S., tens of millions of parents routinely have the MMR vaccine administered to their children because their school districts mandate it, regardless of what they feel about the vaccine.
Signs of rebellion against anti-vaccination parents were already beginning to brew before the COVID-19 outbreak. For example, worrying signs of the economic impact of MMR refusal began to emerge in the summer camp industry by 2019, and some camps began mandating childhood vaccinations without religious exception.
Even if many anti-vaccination individuals continue to voice opposition to mandates after full approval by the FDA, the weight of their opinion can be swiftly and efficiently counterbalanced by government and private sector vaccine mandates, as well as mandates in academic institutions and other nonprofit organizations.
When it comes down to jab or job — or school — there is no room for argument, understanding, or accommodation. The science has spoken, and vaccine refusers will have to go elsewhere to have their bruised egos soothed.
After all, there’s always Facebook. Co-founder Mark Zuckerberg continues to deny and deflect its share of responsibility for spreading vaccine misinformation. The company is still reportedly refusing to share key data on medical misinformation with federal researchers, and earlier this month it threw a wet blanket on misinformation research conducted by a team at New York University.
However, Facebook does appear to be more than happy to continue serving as a platform for quacks and charlatans during the COVID-19 crisis, while making bank off the thoughts and prayers of its desperate users.
Image credit: Pexels
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.