Dr Jillyan Beadle is a member of the Melton Vineyard Preaching and Young Vineyard teams and also works as an NHS GP. We asked her to share her personal thoughts and opinions from the perspective of a healthcare professional and to give us an informed understanding of the issues involved in vaccination.
The advice given here is generic: please consult your own medical practitioner re your particular situation.
On the frontline
In recent weeks there has been some really exciting news about the success of vaccines in preventing Covid-19 as initial trial data has been analysed. But there has also been a lot of information, particularly on social media, speaking out against vaccines. There has been a particular focus on the possible ethical implications of some of the vaccine manufacturing methods being used and the anti-vaccine information has been targeted at Christian groups encouraging them to object to vaccination on moral or ethical grounds.
Much of this information is presented in ways which can be upsetting or anxiety-provoking and it is hard to know sometimes what is fact and what is partial truth, distortion or just plain wrong. Here are some thoughts about this issue from my perspective as a GP and as a Christian.
Source: Johns Hopkins University
Covid-19 has had a profound impact on the whole world over the last year. As I write this the global number of confirmed cases stands at more than 60 million with over 1.4 milion global deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
We have all been impacted by the effects of local and national lockdowns and restrictions in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Some of us may have experienced the effects of the virus itself whether we had mild or more severe symptoms or have even been affected by a bereavement. Many businesses and livelihoods have been affected and as a country we are likely to feel the economic impact for years to come.
In the NHS we have seen waiting lists soar as operations and procedures have been cancelled to prevent services from being overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases and to protect the most vulnerable from being infected in hospital. In General Practice we have had to completely change the way we practice medicine using telephone triage models and getting used to video consultations, using photos to identify rashes and donning and doffing PPE for face to face consultations!
It has honestly been an exhausting and difficult time for many of us but I have learned to dig deep and rely on my faith and I have felt God transform my anxiety and give me a sense of his peace and a real hope for the future in this time.
One of the areas which I’m sure many of us, and I know I personally, have been praying for is a breakthrough in the development of an effective vaccine. All of the measures we have put in place so far can only limit the spread of the virus and are unlikely to eradicate it, which is where a vaccine comes in. Vaccination exposes us to inactivated or weakened virus material in order to prime our immune systems to recognise it and respond to it when it next comes across it.
We have seen vaccines transform lives across the world as diseases have been managed, and in some cases totally eradicated. The success of the MMR vaccine in eliminating measles has meant that in my 17 years as a doctor I’ve only ever encountered one case of it! Unfortunately, we know from the experience with MMR that misinformation can have a profound effect on public confidence in vaccines which can reduce uptake significantly and sadly we have seen a resurgence in cases as a result.
In order to effectively eradicate a disease, we need to see a high take up of effective vaccines, around 70-80% of the population. The problem is that some of the people who may be particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 may not be able to have the vaccination themselves if their own immune systems are not functioning; for example, if they are having chemotherapy for cancer.
In this situation they are reliant on high levels of ‘herd immunity’ in the rest of the population to be protected from the virus. Sadly, significant numbers of people are either unsure about being vaccinated or have decided against having it which will threaten the achievement of herd immunity, protecting the most vulnerable in society and our ability to return to normal life.
So, what are the objections which people are giving as reasons why they may not take up the vaccine?
Are the vaccines safe?
It is certainly true that the speed of development of the vaccines for Covid-19 has been extraordinary and the global nature of this pandemic and multiple teams working across the world putting resources into development has resulted in very rapid breakthroughs. Some of the teams have used well known techniques which have been used in previous vaccines (such as the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine) and others have taken a totally novel approach (Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna) but the overall process of testing these vaccines remains the same.
What has been different this time in order the speed up the process has been that some steps in the trials have been run back to back or overlapped, cutting out the normal delays between stages. By the end of the testing and evaluating stage all the data will be available in the same way but will have been arrived at much more quickly than usual because time is of the essence! Clearly funding has also helped overcome some of the delays that might normally face researchers, which is where involvement of pharmaceutical companies has been vital.
The other factor in the speed of the vaccine production was vaccine developers’ preparedness for this particular scenario. Since previous outbreaks such as SARS, MERS and Ebola there has been a push to prepare for a global pandemic with a ‘plug and play’ vaccine which could be adapted depending on the threat we faced. The team at Oxford, for example, already had the first stage ready to use and had tried it out on similar coronaviruses so they were several steps into the development process straight away.
Regardless of the time pressure, all of the vaccines still have to demonstrate safety and efficacy before they will be approved for use in the UK by the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) who have also been involved in evaluating the vaccines in a rolling way through the development process.
Pharmaceutical companies and profit
Pharmaceutical companies clearly have a motive of making profit in the development of their products but it wouldn’t serve their shareholders well if they produced a product which turned out to be either ineffective or unsafe. Pharmaceutical companies have not always behaved ethically in the past and quite rightly they have been under a great deal of scrutiny in recent years, but I believe the safeguards put in place in terms of the approval process, peer review and ethical approval do protect the interests of consumers as well as people involved in trials.
As we have seen the results of initial trial data coming out, we have certainly seen high levels of scrutiny of the results and the methods used and the pharmaceutical companies will have to robustly show their vaccines are both safe and effective before they are granted approval for use. In the UK this will be done by the MHRA whose main concern is patient safety.
On social media there has been a proliferation of conspiracy theories related to vaccines and the Covid-19 vaccines in development in particular. I have been really concerned about the way these have spread often unchallenged and the tactics used have often been inflammatory and anxiety-provoking, playing on people’s genuine concerns. Most of the videos and articles I have seen appear to have been produced by people who don’t seem to understand the science they are talking about; at best they confuse, and at worse they deliberately mislead people.
The theories about microchips in vaccines and so on are just plain false, there is no evidence to back them up. The fears about modifying DNA are based on half-truths and distortions that arise when people take scientific processes they don’t understand and misinterpret them. For example, one video I saw highlighted the use of the word ‘recombinant’ on vaccine labelling and looked up this word on Wikipedia found it meant taking fragments of DNA and putting them together and assumed this meant the vaccine producers were seeking to change human DNA.
What ‘recombinant’ references in the context of vaccine development is actually with regard to virus genetic material; taking a part of the virus we are trying to vaccinate against and linking it to another type of virus which may be not harmful to people to act as a transport for the harmful virus. In this way our immune systems can respond to the harmful virus and prepare a defence against it without making us ill.
If you come across theories like this on social media, I would encourage you to look at the source of the material and consider how trustworthy it is; ask yourself, can I find other evidence to refute or confirm it? I would also consider the tone of the piece; if it is hectoring and inflammatory or encourages you to ‘Share! Share! Share!’ I would think very carefully about the motivation of the person making it and whether it is right to share it.
The final area I want to address is about the ethical concerns we as Christians might want to consider. John Wyatt, Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London, has produced a very detailed and thoughtful piece which you might find helpful and I’ll include the link below if you’d like to read it.
The material I have seen shared online highlights one particular ethical issue which is regarding use of foetal tissue obtained from abortion in vaccine production. The way this is presented implies that the vaccine itself contains foetal tissue obtained from abortion and should therefore be rejected by Christians who oppose abortion. What they are referencing is so-called ’immortal’ cell lines which are used to produce the vaccine.
Viruses have to replicate inside living cells so large quantities of cells are required in which to grow the vaccine. Some vaccines use cells from chicken eggs and other types of cell, while others do use immortal cell lines derived from foetal tissue obtained from abortion. The cell lines in use now have been replicated in labs over 30-50 years depending on the specific one in question and are obviously not the original foetal tissue.
The cells do not make up part of the vaccine and therefore will not be administered to anyone taking the vaccine. The cells were originally obtained from an abortion which was carried out legally and consensually, but for some people this may present an ethical barrier to them taking the vaccine which those cells have helped produce.
Whilst this does raise an ethical question for us to consider, the context of the original abortion was not for the purpose of obtaining cells which would later be involved in the production of a vaccine. We as consumers can therefore have very little responsibility, on an ethical level, for the original procedure by taking a vaccine produced in this way from the resultant cell lines 30-50 years later.
The ethical responsibilities of scientists involved in the work and clinicians carrying out abortions will obviously be quite different and it is important to have a debate around ethical implications of the source of cell lines. Whilst some of the vaccines coming out for Covid-19 will not have been produced using foetal cell lines it is unlikely we will have a choice in which vaccine we take, as it will depend on what is approved in our country and what has been procured by the NHS. It is therefore unlikely to be possible to request a particular vaccine on ethical grounds and so the choice is more likely to be take the vaccine or opt out and not be vaccinated at all.
In this situation I would encourage you to consider the ethical implications of not being vaccinated versus taking a vaccine produced using foetal cell lines. I feel the biblical principle of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is very relevant here as taking the vaccine may be more for the benefit others than for ourselves. I am a fit and healthy 40-year-old Caucasian woman so the risk of catching Covid-19 is not as serious for me as it might be for many others, but in my line of work I come into contact with many others who are vulnerable to its most serious effects, so I am ethically obliged to take the vaccine in order to protect them.
If we do not achieve herd immunity by widespread vaccination then many vulnerable elderly people, people whose immune systems are non-functioning or who have underling conditions will remain at risk of contracting and potentially dying from Covid-19. If we opt out of vaccination on the ethical grounds of the sanctity of human life, I fear we are at risk of ‘straining out the gnat whilst swallowing the camel’ (Matthew 23.24).
I hope this has helped to clarify the debate a little. These are, of course, my personal views from my experience as a doctor and as a Christian working on the frontline in this pandemic. I have also put some links below which you might find helpful for further reading.
Further sources of information
Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
The push for a COVID-19 vaccine (who.int)
Oxford vaccine: How did they make it so quickly? - BBC News- this was a fascinating read on the process of developing the vaccine by the Oxford team, explaining why they have made such rapid progress
Article: Coronavirus vaccines and Christian ethics - John Wyatt- a very detailed and interesting discussion from the perspective of Christian ethics around the sanctity of life from highly regarded Professor John Wyatt, chair of the Christian Medical Fellowship. He also discusses the ethical issues of equitable distribution of a vaccine which I haven’t touched on.
Why Christians need to say 'Yes!' to a Covid vaccine – a blogpost written by Jocelyn Downey, an immunologist and ordained minister in the Church of England, published by Premier Christianity.