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Q&A: Forum Addresses Concerns about COVID-19 Vaccines

Resources and rumors abound when it comes to COVID-19, leaving many students with concerns about their health. In order to guide students, of whom many are making the first serious health decision of their lives, John Brown University hosted a forum on March 29 to answer questions.

The forum featured Dr. Naveen Patil, medical director for the Infectious Diseases Branch, Healthcare Associated Infections and Antibiotic Stewardship, and the Infection Prevention and Control Programs for the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH); Dr. Atul Kothari, infectious diseases physician and clinical microbiologist for ADH: Healthcare Associated Infections and Outbreak Response Sections; and Dr. Jordan Murdoch, registered pharmacist for ADH. Faculty and staff members Joel Funk, associate professor of biology, Jane Beers, associate professor of biology, and Emily Moore, interim dean of students and director of the Student Counseling Center, also spoke on the panel.

Q: Can the COVID-19 vaccine impact fertility or pregnancy?

A: Funk addressed students’ concerns about future family planning by correcting some misinformation. “There really is no evidence for fertility problems at this point. What I did find is that there is one particular protein that has been brought up on social media, syncytin-1 (needed for placenta development) … which some people have identified as having some similarities … with SARS-CoV-2 spike protein,” Funk said. “If you take two proteins found in the human body and try to see if they align, you can always find little bits that will be similar. But that is really not going to have an impact as far as what would happen in response to that, for immune response when you are vaccinated with that particular protein.” He stated that the antibodies from the vaccine would not attack proteins needed for placenta development.

Funk also presented data from the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine trials. During the Pfizer-BioNTech trials, 23 individuals became pregnant, and there were “no unsolicited adverse pregnancy-related events.” In the Moderna trials, 13 pregnancies were reported, and two “pregnancy-related adverse events occurred” in the placebo group, meaning that these two individuals did not receive the vaccine.

A: Dr. Murdoch said, “From what we do know, there are no adverse side-effects for those who are pregnant and have received vaccines. We’d like to have the person who is either pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant to have a conversation with whoever their doctor may be to cover more of case-specific details. But in general, there is no reason to believe that there’d be any long-term consequences regarding fertility for those wanting to become pregnant or those who are currently pregnant.”

Q: Why should students get the vaccine if they are not high-risk?

A: Beers, in responding to this question, said that she stands amazed at the accomplishments of science. “I see it as God’s hand … The speed at which this was done honestly is God’s common grace and his goodness to us … As Christians, this is where we are called, as Dr. Funk mentioned, to love God and love others,” Beers said. “The people that this really does most significantly affect are the least of these, those who are immunocompromised, those among us who are the elderly. I fully understand you guys are young, but this is really a gift to society. As Christians, we are called to serve the common good.”

Q: Do the vaccines contain fetal cells?

A: Dr. Kothari said that neither the Moderna nor Pfizer vaccines used fetal cell lines. “These fetal cell lines have been available since the 1960s and have been used in the production of multiple vaccines and other therapies,” Dr. Kothari said.

A: Dr. Murdoch said that it is important to note what kinds of abortions could be involved in the development of vaccines. “It could be spontaneous, which is a miscarriage that was used back in the 70s, to develop what they call non-differentiated cells … That’s one of the ways that medicine has been able to make leaps and bounds over the years, to use these non-differentiated cells to create various proteins or matter to grow cells.”

A: Beers recommended looking at faith-based research websites, such as BioLogos.

Q: What is the longevity of the different COVID-19 vaccines?

A: Dr. Murdoch said, “We anticipate that it will be longer than natural immunity … [which] is thought to last roughly 90 days. How long the immunity will last from vaccination is dependent on a few variables, but it is thought to last six months to a year, [which] will be longer than the natural immunity that you get from … getting COVID-19 in the community.”

A: Dr. Patri also addressed the possibility of additional booster shots in the future. “People could have immunity for a few months to a few years, but, again, as strains evolve … and [it] might stabilize later on, so it might be a routine annual affair. We still don’t know,” Dr. Patri said.

Q: Will having a certain percentage of students vaccinated change COVID-19 guidelines at JBU?

A: Moore responded to this question by reminding students that the school follows the guidelines set by the Arkansas Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Leah [Hart] calculates our herd immunity every day, based on the number of vaccination cards and infection rates that we’ve received, we are at 8.6% [for students] … it’s going to have to be a lot higher than that,” Moore said.

Q: What about individuals who have died after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine?

A: Dr. Kothari said, “The last report I saw was from the 12th of March, and, actually, in fact, there were 1609 deaths, not 9977 which were reported after vaccination. This is not considered to be significant because it is actually lower than the reported death rate in the general population. So, the way we look at these signals is if there’s an increased rate after vaccination, then that is investigated. You know, sometimes you get a headache, [and], just because you have a headache and if you’ve got a vaccine, you sometimes will think that it’s following the vaccine. That would be reported to VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) as well, in the same way.”

A: Dr. Parti said that not all deaths reported to VAERS are linked to the vaccine. “Everyone reports, you know, because we are encouraging people to report these things … [but] on the back-end the CDC investigates these things to make sure they are not directly related to the vaccination or caused by the vaccination.”

Q: What are some of the long-term effects of having COVID-19? Is this a reason for getting vaccinated?

A: Describing long-term effects, Dr. Kothari said, “There are long haulers who we’ve seen, folks who have never been sick enough to be hospitalized but still have had the disease for a long period of time … ” Dr. Kothari notes some of the prolonged effects include “not [being] able to get back to regular activities [and] being short of breath all the time.”

A: As the director of the Student Counseling Center, Moore has witnessed the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the mental health of students. “There are some mental health side effects that people are seeing. We are seeing that same thing in the counseling center,” Moore said, “and college counseling centers across the U.S. are also saying that students who have been infected and are recovering are having some mental health symptoms. So, you want to avoid becoming infected.”

For more information about JBU’s COVID-19 response, visit www.jbu.edu/health-services/coronavirus/. To find mental health resources offered by JBU, visit www.jbu.edu/student-counseling/.


Photo courtesy of Spencer Davis