Given the policies many governments have adopted with respect to Covid vaccines – namely, making the lives of unvaccinated people as difficult as possible, while constantly expanding the definition of ‘unvaccinated’ – you’d hope we’d have a very good understanding of vaccine side effects.
It’s one thing to mandate vaccines that have been around for decades, such as those against polio and tetanus. It’s quite another to mandate novel vaccines whose approval process was expedited, and for which we have less than two years of follow-up data.
While current evidence suggests that serious side effects are rare, the same is true of Covid itself when we’re talking about healthy, young people or those with a prior infection. Hence it’s by no means clear that vaccination actually makes sense for these people – especially if you factor in the possibility of unknown, long-term effects.
So far, there’s evidence of an increased risk of blood clots following the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines, and an increased risk of heart inflammation following the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. While the absolute risks are still low, any side effects – however rare – have to be taken seriously.
However, we still don’t know exactly what the risk of side effects is for specific subgroups, such as ‘people aged 18–30 with a prior infection’. In addition, some conditions that have been linked to the vaccines (including one that resembles long Covid) are not yet well-understood.
Shouldn’t scientists be rushing to answer these and other unanswered questions about vaccine side effects? You’d certainly think so. But unfortunately, that isn’t the way science works in our current, politicised era.
As this surprisingly candid report in the journal Science notes, scientists have other things to consider aside from how pressing certain questions might be:
Probing possible side effects presents a dilemma to researchers: They risk fomenting rejection of vaccines that are generally safe, effective, and crucial to saving lives. “You have to be very careful” before tying COVID-19 vaccines to complications, Nath cautions. “You can make the wrong conclusion. … The implications are huge.” [Avindra Nath is clinical director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke]
Researchers are reluctant to work on vaccine side effects for fear of causing, or being accused of causing, ‘vaccine hesitancy’. The Science report goes on:
Other researchers note the scientific community is uneasy about studying such effects. “Everyone is tiptoeing around it,” Pretorius says. “I’ve talked to a lot of clinicians and researchers at various universities, and they don’t want to touch it.” [Resia Pretorius is a physiologist at Stellenbosch University in South Africa]
Needless to say, this does not bode well for science. Nor does it bode well for vaccine uptake in the long term. After all, people will only take vaccines – whether for Covid or anything else – if they trust the medical establishment. And ignoring side effects, even rare ones, isn’t the way to build trust.