Should you get vaccinated?

I can barely believe I have asked that question. It is inspired by an article, Why I’ll Not Be Taking a Covid-19 Vaccine — and I’m a Scientist, that my sometime pen pal, Michael Zimmerman, founder and director of the Clergy Letter Project, published in the online magazine Medium. As you can see, Dr. Zimmerman, who holds a PhD in biology, has pretty well made up his mind, and his answer is “No.”

As Dr. Zimmerman put it in an e-mail to members of the Clergy Letter Project, his position is “that politics was influencing medical decisions to the detriment of society.” You can read his Medium article for yourself, but he seems largely influenced by the premature approval of convalescent plasma for Covid-19, slowing down of testing, and “many other recent actions [that] are attacked by virtually all in the scientific community as being scientifically and medically unsound.” Dr. Zimmerman wisely notes that his position could be used to “inflame the passions” of anti-vaxxers and put “a growing number of individuals at risk from diseases that are easily controlled.” For that he blames “permitting previously respected agencies to be subverted for political gain.”

His article did not escape the notice of Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Collins wrote what I would call a letter of rebuttal privately to Dr. Zimmerman, but Dr. Zimmerman received permission to post that letter here. In the letter, Dr. Collins asks Dr. Zimmerman to reconsider and argues that “by the end of 2020 we may well have at least one vaccine that is safe and effective – by rigorous standards that I think you would strongly endorse.” He asks, fairly, “Are you allowing your own scientific judgment to be overcome by the current political tumult, and granting a victory to the forces of irrationality?” and adds,

Righteous indignation is one of my favorite emotions too, but sometimes it needs to be scrutinized. Many people depend on you and the Clergy Letter Project to bring a faithful blend of scientific reason and God’s love to a hurting world. Does this stance fit with that? Prayerfully consider what God would expect of you at a time like this. Lives are at stake.

Dr. Zimmerman’s reply is posted in the same PDF file. He says there that he does not question the dedication nor the ability of government scientists. But he is very frankly afraid, regarding Stephen Hahn, the Commissioner of Food and Drugs (head of the FDA), and Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, that

[i]f the president were to say “approve this vaccine,” I simply cannot trust them to do anything other than to say “yes, sir.”

In the e-mail to the Clergy Letter Project, Dr. Zimmerman expresses appreciation for Dr. Collins’s “thoughtful and impassioned note.” Dr. Collins, he says, made him rethink his beliefs, but in the end, “the core of [his] position, that politics was influencing medical decisions to the detriment of society, remained unchanged.”

The exchange between Drs. Zimmerman and Collins reminded me of a discussion I had recently with a friend, also a scientist. Like Dr. Zimmerman, she is afraid that a harmful or ineffective vaccine may be rushed through and administered to an unsuspecting population. Would she get the vaccine? After some back-and-forth, she averred, “If Fauci said to.”

Acknowledgment. Thanks to Michael Zimmerman for allowing me to quote the letters between him and Francis Collins.