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EDITORIAL: Allow public debate, vote on vaccines

EDITORIAL: Allow public debate, vote on vaccines

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In early March, before the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed in Virginia by Gov. Ralph Northam, the General Assembly passed a bill (HB 1090) patroned by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, that amended existing state law requiring that children entering public or private schools in Virginia, including daycare facilities, be vaccinated against a number of infectious diseases.

Members of the Virginia Board of Health, who are appointed by the governor, were given authority under the new law to follow recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention and add four new vaccines to the list: hepatitis A, meningococcal, HPV for boys, rotavirus, and a second shot for chickenpox (varicella). The annual influenza vaccine was not included.

Parents can still obtain a religious or medical exemption and opt out of the HPV vaccine under the legislation. But if a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, will it be added to the mandatory vaccination schedule, too?

The new law requires the state Board of Health to hold a 60-day comment period after any new vaccine is added to the list, but critics say it also effectively blocks state legislators from holding public hearings and voting on any decisions made by the unelected board.

Although vaccines are one of the triumphs of modern medicine, and have nearly wiped out what were once widespread and often fatal childhood diseases such as measles and polio, there are always risks involved. Because of such risks, mandating them should be fully debated in the General Assembly, with health professionals and members of the public allowed to testify.

Opponents of the new law point out that there are 264 vaccines for other infectious diseases currently in various stages of development, including for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, Group A and B streptococcus, herpes simplex and salmonella. Are young children supposed to get all or just some of them when they become available before they can enroll in school?

Will all children be required to get a COVID-19 vaccination even though the fatality rate for their age group is extremely low? Where will the CDC or the Virginia Board of Health draw the line?

In the case of COVID-19, mandating a vaccine to deal with a worldwide pandemic that is being rushed to market is problematic, according to Dr. William Haseltine, founder of Harvard Medical School’s cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments.

Writing in Scientific American on June 22, Dr. Haseltine warned that “there are risks that come with a fast-tracked vaccine delivered [at the] end of this year, not the least of which are the risks related to the safety of the vaccine itself. … Some vaccines worsen the consequences of infection rather than protect, a phenomenon called antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE),” he explained. “ADE has been observed in previous attempts to develop coronavirus vaccines. To add to the concern, antibodies typical of ADE are present in the blood of some COVID-19 patients.”

Certain individuals might be harmed from a too-hastily released vaccine, but the real danger to public health would come from the inevitable reaction to a flawed product. “Trust in other lifesaving vaccines will be eroded even further if a COVID vaccine goes wrong and many more people—children especially—will be at risk if vaccination rates fall,” Haseltine pointed out.

Since the new legislation will not go into effect until July 1, 2021, the General Assembly has a whole year to change the law, allow full and open debate on any new mandated vaccines recommended by the state Board of Health, and take full responsibility for any final decisions by voting them up or down.

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