By Khalil Marcus Lambert, Ph.D.
NATIONAL – When I started my training to become a biomedical scientist, I promised myself that I would uphold the values of my community. My community has always been independent in its thinking. Our teachers encouraged us to become independent thinkers.1 We don’t just accept every statement that is given to us as truth.
I later found out that this was one of the core tenants of my scientific training as well. As a doctoral student, we were taught not to just accept an author’s interpretation of scientific works. We should be critical of the data that is presented, analyze that data, then come up with our own understanding that will either confirm or refute the author’s interpretation.
I wish more of us shared this value. There has been far too much misinformation spread about COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccines. For example, it’s been said that mRNA vaccines alter a person’s individual genetic material and therefore “genetically modify” humans. This is simply not true and not scientifically possible for an mRNA vaccine.
What is true is that over 300,000 people have died from COVID-19 caused by the coronavirus,2 and we (Black, Native American and Latino Americans) have a COVID-19 death rate of more than 2.7 times that of White Americans.3 Our focus needs to be on how we stop these deaths in our communities. So, should we take the COVID-19 vaccines?
My goal is not to convince you to get vaccinated. Vaccination is 100% a personal choice. Yet, as a scientist who has been trained in microbiology and clinical epidemiology, I feel compelled to give you the facts and the data so that you can make an informed decision about what will be best for you and your family (whether that’s getting vaccinated or just staying home, wearing a mask, and strengthening your immune system).
I want to help separate fact from fiction. I’m writing this for my community and my people, and I’m not speaking on behalf of anyone but myself. While I can’t address everything surrounding COVID-19 and vaccines, here are a few truths based on my research that will hopefully help present a balanced point of view.
- None of the vaccines use the live virus that causes COVID-19:
The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use a new mRNA technology. These mRNA are very small molecules that give instructions to the body for how to fight the actual virus. This is not the actual virus, and there is even less chance for contamination in the developmental process. This can be a concern for other types of vaccines which are often produced in cell cultures or chicken eggs and go through a series of purification steps.
Contamination has happened before in 1955 when some batches of the polio vaccine were contaminated with live polio virus.4 This was known as the Cutter Incident, and more than 250 cases of polio were attributed to this contamination. Millions of polio vaccines were contaminated with another virus called simian virus 40 (SV40). The research is inconclusive about whether this contamination might have caused cancer in humans.
This was in the early days of U.S. vaccinations, and steps have been taken to increase oversight and improve the developmental process. However, even more recently in 2010, it was found that Porcine circovirus (PCV) type 1, a virus found in pigs, was present in the vaccines licensed to fight a different type of virus (rotavirus).5 Fortunately, PCV1 is not known to cause disease in animals or humans.
Is there a chance that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines could be contaminated with live coronavirus that causes COVID-19? It would be highly unlikely in the manufacturing process.
- We don’t know the long-term effects of the vaccines:
I’ve read both of the reports from the ongoing clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccine that are currently available right now (FDA briefing documents of the Pzier and Moderna vaccines)6. According to the report, they are generally safe and work surprisingly well at protecting against COVID-19 disease (95% effective).
Most people who take the vaccine may experience mild to moderate, short-term side-effects such as injection site pain, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, and chills. This is somewhat normal for vaccinations. It doesn’t mean that you have COVID-19.
It means that your immune system is working hard to fight what it thinks is a foreign invader, so that when it actually comes in contact with the real coronavirus, it will easily be able to fight off the infection.
The frequency of serious adverse events was low (less than 1%) in both vaccine trials. In my last visit to the barbershop, I overheard one barber telling his client, “Yea, you know six people have died from the vaccine.”
This is not exactly true. A total of six people of 43,000 participants (two were given the vaccine, four were given placebo) died during the Pfizer vaccine trials, not from the vaccine itself. This is 0.01% of participants and four of them were never injected with the vaccine.7
Some people developed Bell’s palsy, appendicitis, or other serious conditions. All of these cases in the vaccine group were not more frequent than expected in the general population, and most of the deaths happened quite some time after injection.
This means that it was expected some people would pass away or have adverse events during the trial, which is ongoing and will last for at least 25 months. It does not mean (and it’s too early to tell) that these vaccines will cause those events. It’s going to take time to understand long-term effects.
- Black and Hispanic volunteers are represented in the vaccine trials
When the Phase 3 clinical trials started, I was particularly concerned about the number of Black and Hispanic volunteers, as that data had not been released at the time. The data is out now, and shows that 10% (about 4000) of the participants were Black.
(About 2700 Black participants were in the Moderna trial, still amounting to 10% of the volunteers.)
The good news is that the vaccines are not any less effective in Black or Hispanic Americans. Both vaccines work about the same in preventing COVID-19 across age groups, gender, race, and people with underlying medical conditions associated with high risk of severe COVID-19.
- There is no mercury or formaldehyde in the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines
I know many of you are concerned about what’s in the vaccines. There is no mercury, and vaccine companies stopped using this preservative in childhood vaccines. There’s also no formaldehyde or any human fetal tissue in the vaccine. You’ll actually find more harmful additives in processed foods. These vaccines surprisingly only contain salts (which help to stabilize the pH for the body), lipids (which help aid the mRNA and are harmless), and sucrose (sugar).
- There is oversight by black scientists and physicians
You might have heard that a black female scientist, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, was involved in helping to develop the vaccine. I know of her through my circle of colleagues and friends. Like me, she wants no part in doing any harm to our communities and has been a big advocate for the vaccines.
There’s also people that I know who are sitting on the committees and boards responsible for the oversight of the vaccine process. Our community pushed for this, and I’m happy to see it. I feel better knowing people like Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, President of Meharry Medical College and Dr. Leon McDougle, President of the National Medical Association, are scrutinizing this process.
We have to independently verify the studies and process being rolled out by pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, which have a questionable history in our communities.
For example, Pfizer was sued for trials of an anti-meningitis drug that killed or disabled Nigerian children, at the hands of many Nigerian healthcare workers. Based on my research, this was due to insufficient oversight, raising the importance of oversight by diverse, independent review boards.
- Black people have a complicated medical history with the United States.
I want to take a moment to highlight some of the reasons for mistrust in the U.S. medical system. Black people should not be to blame or shamed for vaccine hesitancy.
Right before the start of the pandemic, I gave a lecture on Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer (which was actually a misdiagnosis). She was treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a white doctor removed cells from her cervix without her knowledge.
Medical doctors and other scientists used these cells in numerous experiments, including understanding the effects of radiation and space on the body to testing the live polio vaccine. Her cells helped develop and grow companies, earning millions of dollars in profits. The Lacks family, however, were not told about (or provided consent for) the cell cultures for more than 20 years after her death.8
You might have been reminded recently about the details of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where treatment was withheld from Black men while the medical community studied the effects of the syphilis. This is merely a moment in a long history of racist medical practices that goes back to the moment enslaved Africans first arrived in the Americas. It is well-known that doctors would conduct experiments on slaves and freed slaves without their knowledge or consent.
Medical schools disproportionately used Black people in clinical trials and live surgical demonstrations. Black inmates, mental patients, and “misbehaving” Black boys were forced to undergo mind-control experiments (blind-cut lobotomies).
These cases and more are well-documented and can be further explored in a book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. These egregious acts also extended into other vulnerable populations.
- There is no scientific evidence for a link between vaccinations and autism
This rumor is wide spread, but based on the data conducted independently by scientists around the world, there is no scientific evidence for a link between vaccinations and autism. Vaccines do not cause autism. Out of the many vaccines that have been developed, I have only been able to find two scientifically confirmed links of vaccines increasing disease risk.
People who received the 1976 swine flu vaccine had an increased risk for developing Guillain-Barré Syndrome (1 additional case of the syndrome for every 100,000 people who got the swine flu vaccine).
The other is for the RotaShield vaccine which was found to cause intussusception in healthy infants who normally would be at low risk for this condition.
- If you really want to know my opinion…
I’m concerned for my community. I’m concerned for those 65 and older and those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or hypertension. We need doctors and scientists that we trust to advise us on how best to care for our community. In my opinion, we have two options: develop our own treatments and protective measures or we take part in the analysis of what is available to us.
Avoiding crowds, wearing masks, and strengthening your immune system can be very effective to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. However, I’ll be getting the vaccine because the known and potential benefits of the vaccine outweigh the known and potential risks (and I travel a lot). The bottom-line is that for those of you who choose to be vaccinated, the first two COVID-19 vaccines that have been released are safe so far, and we are following closely for long-term effects. Continue to build your immune system and stay tuned to trusted experts.
1Imam Warith Deen Mohammed: “If we become independent thinkers, we can make a contribution”, Islamica Magazine, September 11, 2008, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/altmuslim/2008/09/if_we_become_independent_thinkers_we_can_make_a_contribution/
2CDC COVID Data Tracker, January 21, 2020, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesper100klast7days
3The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 deaths by race and ethnicity in the U.S., Dec. 10, 2020, https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race
4Historical Vaccine Safety Concerns, September 4, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/concerns-history.html
5Historical Vaccine Safety Concerns, September 4, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/concerns-history.html
6Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee Meeting, Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine FDA Briefing Document, December 10, 2020, https://www.fda.gov/media/144245/download and Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee Meeting, Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine FDA Briefing Document, December 17, 2020, https://www.fda.gov/media/144434/download
7Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee Meeting, Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine FDA Briefing Document, December 10, 2020, https://www.fda.gov/media/144245/download
8Tracing The ‘Immortal’ Cells Of Henrietta Lacks, NPR, March 18, 2011, https://www.npr.org/2011/03/18/134622044/tracing-the-immortal-cells-of-henrietta-lacks
BIOSKETCH: Dr. Khalil Marcus Lambert is an Assistant Dean and Assistant Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine. He received his Ph.D. in Biomedical Science from NYU Grossman School of Medicine, a Master’s degree in clinical epidemiology and health services research from Weill Cornell Graduate School. His bachelor’s degree in biology is from Howard University. Dr. Lambert is a graduate of W. D. Mohammed High School and recipient of the Science & Technology Award by the Mohammed Schools of Atlanta. He has also received the Generation NEXT Leadership Award presented by Muslim Journal at its 14th Annual A Time To Be Grateful in Kansas City, Mo. He resides in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and four children.