By Dr. Terrill Wade, Crosswalk.com
The first part of this article, “Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Ethical for Christians? Part 1,” dealt with the question of whether vaccinations in general fit within the Christian worldview as an ethical way to fight disease. Now it is time to look specifically at the COVID-19 vaccine, beginning with the question “Is it safe?” To which the answer is “Nothing is completely safe in this world.”
Here is the question we should be asking ... “Is the COVID-19 vaccine as safe as it can be made in this less-than-perfect world, and will it help us to stay healthy so that we can continue loving God and helping our neighbors?"
But how do we go about answering that question? After all, there is no 11th Commandment that says “Thou shalt (or shalt not) receive a COVID-19 vaccination!” While we know the Holy Spirit leads us to understand God’s words for our daily life, the Bible does not mention vaccination, specifically COVID-19 vaccines, at all. We are going to have to rely on wise decision-making.
To do that we will need the type of wisdom that Solomon provides in the book of Proverbs, a book which provides general wisdom based on the understanding stated in Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
It is the kind of wisdom that calls us to examine the knowledge which is available.
Proverbs 14:14, “A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps.”
It is the kind of wisdom that chooses to gather all the facts before making judgments.
Proverbs 18:13, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame”
So let us work to “hear” the basic facts about vaccine safety. In order to begin, however, we first need to look at some of the factors that continue to fuel the ongoing debates around the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
What Is Causing the Most Confusion about the COVID-19 Vaccine?
1. The difficulty with numbers.
One of our biggest problems is numbers, and so vaccine risks are often overblown or undervalued. This most commonly happens because of a misinterpretation of the numbers published on publicly accessible COVID-19 websites. A frequent source of such number jumbling is the publicly available Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) website. Each year VAERS receives around 30,000 reports, mostly describing known mild side effects such as fever.
Physicians and vaccine manufacturers are required to submit vaccine adverse event reports to VAERS but anyone can submit reports, including people who have received a vaccine and parents or family members of such a person. We should understand that the purpose of VAERS is to provide indications of new, or increasing numbers of particular side effects which need to be investigated. It is not meant to be a direct source of numbers, and if taken as such it will lead to misunderstandings about vaccine side effects.
Here are some of those misunderstandings which have led to confusing reports:
- Misunderstanding the term “adverse events.” Adverse events are not the same thing as side effects. Side effects have been linked to a vaccine by scientific studies. Adverse event reports can also include anything unusual, simple or serious, that happens during or just after vaccination. An example would be fainting or high blood pressure or the dizziness that comes with hyperventilation, all symptoms which can be due to the anxiety of receiving an injection.
- Reports of adverse events that happen during or just after a vaccination do not necessarily mean that the reported problem was caused by the vaccine. The event could simply be a time-concurrent problem. Examples of time-concurrent events include such things as the death by heart attack of someone who has coronary disease, or the fever in someone who currently has a bladder infection.
- The same adverse event can be posted by several different sources at the same time, such as the physician, the family, and the vaccine manufacturer. This will increase apparent numbers.
An easy way to see how VAERS is meant to work is to look at the way scientists sifted through the VAERS reports in January 2021 to find out how many cases of anaphylaxis occurred after the first doses of the Moderna vaccine had been released. (Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that usually occurs within 15 minutes of vaccination)
During the period December 21, 2020 – January 10, 2021, approximately 4,000,000 first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine were administered. During that same time period, reports of 1,266 adverse events related to Moderna vaccines were submitted to the VAERS. Among these, 108 case reports were identified for further review as possible cases of severe allergic reactions. Of those, 10 met the Brighton Collaboration case definition for anaphylaxis. (4 possible cases were unavailable for follow-up). All cases recovered.
Are you seeing how numbers must be used carefully? The point I am trying to make is that simply plucking numbers off a website, whether for deaths or side effects caused by the vaccine, can give ‘scary’ and wrong social media reports.
2. The reliability of our information sources.
We also have problems with understanding vaccine safety factors when we rely on websites or blogs that are not equipped to deal with the science of emerging situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. As we just saw, handling the numbers and drawing the correct conclusions can be tricky. If we want to accurately “hear” the facts it is essential that we get our information from websites that handle the information about the COVID-19 disease and the science behind COVID-19 vaccines precisely and correctly.
We often tend to rely on our favorite sites or bloggers who do a great job of handling the Word of God. They can be a lot of help in assessing where known scientific facts fit into a Christian worldview, but we must carefully consider whether they have the background to accurately handle constantly-emerging scientific facts and numbers in situations like the pandemic. Here are several reliable websites that carry straightforward and up-to-date information on COVID-19 vaccine facts. The Mayo Clinic Vaccine Guidance and the CDC Covid Tracker
3. Our varied attitudes toward the field of science.
Some of us have ambivalent feelings toward ‘science’ and scientists, perhaps from frequently seeing scientists mixing atheistic beliefs in with factual experimental results and calling it all “science.” This generalized concern may cause us to doubt scientific pronouncements about the safety of the vaccine. But, as we saw in Part 1, fact-oriented science that is directed toward healing disease, or preventing disease in the case of vaccination, is a legitimate part of mankind’s dominion work on this earth.
The basic work of science deals with understanding our world through careful observation and experimentation, and, if possible, restoring parts of it. Scientific work which is carried out within this sphere of operation fits well within the work assigned by God to man. The evidence of good science is the carrying out well-designed experiments which produce accurate results, as shown by the ability of other scientists to achieve the same results under the same conditions. This kind of consistent result has been demonstrated in the COVID-19 vaccine trials.
4. Our fear of the unknown.
We may become very anxious because we can’t know every single thing about the COVID-19 vaccines. The anxiety is deepened as we worry about getting one of the vaccine side effects, rare though they are. It is made worse yet again by an unbalanced focus on “possible” long-term negative side effects in the future. In short, we worry that the “unknowns” make it too risky to become vaccinated.
However, there are lots of things we don’t, and can’t, know that relate to our safety. We can’t even know what might happen to us today as we drive to the store. Did you know that The current motor vehicle death rate is 11.9 deaths/100,000 people, or 110.9 deaths /1,000,000 people?
Does that stop us from driving to the store? No, the benefits are too great. In the same way, the benefits provided by the COVID-19 vaccines – preventing death, severe complications, and economic upheaval – are very valuable. This is true for us personally. This is true for our neighbors and our community.
We already do know many valuable facts about the vaccine:
- We know that 1.5 years into the vaccination process (including the experiences of volunteers in the trials) vaccination side effects generally continue to be consistent with the results of the vaccine trials conducted the year before.
- We know that previous vaccines have not usually had long-term side effects.
- We know that the COVID-19 vaccine side effects occur at a far lower rate than motor vehicle deaths and that they are usually not lethal.
- We know that the overwhelming majority of vaccinated people encounter only the mild immediate and short-term effects from the vaccination.
Yet even though we can’t know everything about the COVID-19 vaccines, we do know our Heavenly Father! Our most basic wisdom step is to realize that indulging in the free-floating anxiety which comes from focusing on these “unknown possible” events only erodes our trust in the Sovereign God who loves us more than we can imagine.
In Matthew 6, Jesus tells His disciples not to be anxious about the future because our heavenly Father already knows what we need now and what we will need. Instead, we should focus on being wise today.
“Therefore, do not be anxious saying “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” for the Gentiles seek after all these things and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matt.6:31-34 ESV
Like the disciples, we need to obey Jesus’ command. We can only be wise by choosing to “hear” accurately today, then making the wisest decision we can, and trusting our God to be sufficient for the future. And now there is a lot known about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
How Safe Are the COVID-19 Vaccines?
There are really two different questions involved here:
- How thorough were the trials which produced the Covid-19 vaccines?
- How safe are the COVID-19 vaccines today?
The First Safety Question: How thorough were the trials which produced the COVID-19 vaccine?
The short answer might appear to be “not thorough enough.” Obviously the Covid-19 vaccines became available after trials which only lasted months instead of the usual five or more years. Surely that means they can’t be as safe? The truthful but longer answer is “yes, they were thorough enough.”
To understand that answer we must look at the different way that time was used in creating these vaccines, the larger-than-usual investment of money in the production of these vaccines, and the huge number of people involved in these trials.
Let us consider these factors by comparing them to the normal process
How did effective time management make the shorter trials safe? The most common clinical drug trials take five to seven years to complete and four stages of investigation are involved. Each stage has specific purposes and methods, and may vary in length from months to years. The results from each stage must be approved by the Federal Drug Authority (FDA) using particular criteria before the trial can move forward. Every part of each stage takes time: raising funds, finding staff, finding investigation sites and, most importantly, finding the right number of suitable volunteers to test. The process can take years.
Let us picture the usual drug trial process as a train that is slowly pulling into a rail yard, being worked upon one coach at a time. Each coach must be completed, then checked by an impartial observer before work on the next coach can begin. It will take a long time to work through the whole train!
But now let’s look at a different picture. Picture that same train in the same rail yard but this time the coaches are separated and placed on parallel tracks next to each other. With the help of extra workers each coach can be worked on at the same time. It will take a lot less time to complete the work on that train, yet all coaches are receiving the thorough attention they need.
The second picture actually reflects the way in which the COVID-19 trials were set up. Research was carried out on different stages of the trial at the same time! This is one of the main reasons that the shorter COVID-19 vaccine trials were still safe.
Also contributing to the safe speed of the trials is the fact that scientists had been researching other coronaviruses for years and already had a knowledge base upon which to build. The COVID-19 virus is one of a group of mRNA viruses which include the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS virus). These previous outbreaks (not pandemics) began stoking research into mRNA vaccines years ago.
The Second Safety Question: How did more money make the shorter trials safe?
Most vaccine trials are funded by one pharmaceutical company/investigator and money is limited. Because many drugs do not make it all the way through to final FDA approval a company will wait for the approval of each stage before investing in the next. For the COVID-19 pandemic vaccine research, however, many drug companies around the world immediately assigned large amounts of their money and resources into COVID-19 vaccine research. The governments of countries like the United States also poured huge amounts of money into the research because of the severe threat posed by the pandemic to their citizens.
This extra money enabled the trials to speed up in several ways:
- As already explained, multiple stages could be tackled at once because there was enough money to cover possible failure of a vaccine.
- More staff could be hired so more work could be done more rapidly in all parts of the process.
- More resources could be bought and utilized.
How did having more people involved in the trials make the shorter trials safe? World-wide concern about the health and economic effects of the pandemic drew an unprecedented number of volunteers willing to take on the trial risks in order to help produce what the world’s best hope – a vaccine.
Normal vaccine trials usually involve less than 7,000 people, yet up to 30,000 to 40,000 volunteers were involved in the Pfizer and Moderna trials alone! There were also trials going on in Britain, South America, South Africa, Australia, China, and Russia, to name just a few countries. In fact, more people have been studied in the COVID-19 vaccine trials than in any other vaccine trials. Ever!
Having this huge number of volunteers:
- enabled investigators to achieve a more thorough understanding of important treatment factors during the clinical trials than is usually possible. Factors such as the correct dosages needed, the most effective timing of the shots, and the effectiveness of the vaccines for different ages and sexes were tested on much larger-than-normal groups.
- enabled enough placebo- participants to actually catch the COVID-19 disease so that investigators could see the preventative effect of the vaccines
- allowed both the common and the less common side effects of the vaccine to show up during the studies. (In normal trials the less common side effects may not show because of the limited numbers of volunteers, and will only register as a problem after the vaccine has been approved and is on the market.)
Preliminary lab research and animal studies--> setting up manufacturing and quality control of vaccines--> FDA assessment-->Stages 1,2 3, of clinical trials-->Data safety Monitoring Board--> application for EUA use-->FDA science and evaluation group (CBER)-->Vaccine Advisory Committee (VRBPAC)-->CBER again -->FDA
If the FDA then determines that the criteria for an EUA are met, including, and especially, that the known and potential benefits outweigh the known and potential risks of the vaccine, the FDA may authorize the vaccine for emergency use. The FDA did issue those authorizations to the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines in December 2020, and to the J&J COVID-19 vaccine in February of 2021.
A year and a half later, the thorough work done in the shorter COVID-19 vaccine trials has been confirmed by the results of the millions of vaccinations given out across the world.
How Safe Are the COVID-19 Vaccines Today?
After continuous monitoring, the current safety status of the vaccines in January 2022 can be seen below:
The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines:
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for ages over 16 (the first one released) has now met full drug status and was given full FDA approval in late 2021. It is now being marketed under the trade name of COMINARTY. The other Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines (for younger age groups) still remain under Emergency Authorization.
The Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are still operating under Emergency Use Authorization but the vaccine for ages over 18 is well on the path to full FDA approval.
Apart from the mild short-term effects of these two mRNA vaccines, only two side effects need mentioning.
1. Anaphylaxis – an immediate, severe, and possibly life-threatening allergic response – is a rare occurrence. Cases arise in only five to nine cases of COVID-19 vaccination in the U.S. for every million (1,000,000) doses given, and most commonly occur within 15-30 minutes of vaccination. It occurs most often in women with an allergic history. Observation and immediate epinephrine provide appropriate treatment.
- See here for more allergy-related information.
- Vaccine Information fact sheet for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines (including the ingredients)
- Vaccine information fact sheet for Moderna vaccines (including the ingredients)
2. Myocarditis/pericarditis - also a rare side effect, seen most often in adolescent boys and young men several days after mRNA vaccine shots. The body’s immune system is causing inflammation of the heart linings. Symptoms may include chest pain, shortness of breath, or palpitations. The majority respond well to medications and rest. See the CDC information here for more information.
The J&J COVID-19 vaccine:
On the other hand, continued monitoring of the J&J COVID-19 vaccine has shown it to be both less effective against recent variants than the other two vaccines, and to have the most severe side effects (although both are still rare in occurrence) of clotting disorders and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Because there are two safer and more effective vaccines easily available now, the CDC issued an updated CDC vaccine recommendation on December 16, 2021 encouraging people not to get the J&J COVID-19 vaccination if the other vaccines are available. At the same time the CDC emphasized that the J&J vaccine is still perfectly acceptable if no other vaccines are available, or if an individual is unwilling or unable to receive an mRNA vaccine, because its benefits still outweigh the side effects.
In summary, let us follow Solomon’s advice from Proverbs and make our decisions about whether the COVID-19 vaccine is safe enough for us to continue our God-given callings to love God and love others through ‘hearing’ the facts about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines
The next article “Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Ethical for Christians Part 3 - Ethical Procedures and Content” will deal with concerns about fetal tissue involvement and the mRNA contents of the vaccine.
You can read Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Ethical for Christians? Part 1 here.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/JoaoPauloBurini
Terrill Wade is a retired M.D. and medical educator who completed her medical training in Australia and her Family Practice Residency and Board Certification in the United States. Her years after that were divided between medicine, homeschooling three children, biology teaching, and adjunct lecturing. She is particularly interested in the effects on society of the new genetic technologies that have developed over the last 20 years. The direction that genetic research takes is enormously influenced by society’s answer to one question: “What does it mean to be human?”
Dr. Wade’s aim is to encourage other Christians to make the effort to accurately understand the relevant scientific facts involved in new medical technology, and, just as importantly, to then assess where, or if, this technology/medical treatment fits within a Christian view of the relationship between God and man.
To further this goal, she gives presentations to Christian groups, writes articles, and sporadically maintains two blogs - newmedinfo.com (currently concerning Covid-19 vaccines) and havingchildrentoday.org (dealing with assisted reproduction matters).