On Jan. 28, Westmont’s newly formed Medicine in Action club hosted a Zoom event aptly titled “The Virus and the Vaccine,” which featured several physicians and biologists with the intent to listen to a variety of voices about the nature of the COVID-19 virus and the development of a vaccine. Counter to the intentions of the event, two voices quickly started drowning out the contributions of others. Dr. Meryl Nass and Dr. James Lyons-Weiler dominated much of the panel with their discussion of the pandemic and the science behind different antiviral treatments and vaccines. Several of the comments made by these two experts caused disagreement with the other panelists as well as confusion amidst the students attending. The claims promulgated by these two panelists serve as a reminder to the Westmont community of the importance of pursuing truth as we navigate the travails of a worldwide crisis.
Early on in the panel, Dr. Nass commented that she had compelled her son, who is a doctor himself, to take the drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) after he tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020. Use of this drug has been popular amidst certain factions. Most recently, a doctor who advocated its use was arrested after being part of the US Capitol Riot on Jan. 6. You do not want to go to someone known to deny facts for medical advice. HCQ was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating COVID-19 in June 2020 after a National Institutes of Health Study gathered preliminary findings that this drug had no ability to prevent the virus or improve outcome in hospitalized patients. Despite this research, Dr. Nass continues to promote its use to “cure” COVID-19. While unanswered questions about the virus still exist, the current majority of scientific literature on the efficacy of this drug in treating COVID-19 claims that HCQ is ineffective.
Beyond this one comment regarding HCQ, other comments made by these two doctors seemed to inspire unfounded doubt or confusion about the effectiveness and safety of the two mRNA COVID-19 vaccines that currently have emergency permission for distribution in the United States. Statements ranged from questioning vaccine safety in general to citing blog posts as if they were of equal weight as published scientific literature. A healthy sense of skepticism is always appropriate in science, and often the biggest breakthroughs come from posing questions about supposedly concrete realities, like when Nicolas Copernicus questioned the geocentric model of the solar system. However, when skepticism is baseless or borders on fear-mongering, it becomes unhealthy, if not downright dangerous.
It is important to remember that we cannot divorce the question of vaccine safety and efficacy from the context of the world we live in. All it takes is a brief glance at a leading newspaper like The New York Times to see that a viral threat has upended our society and continues to take the lives of thousands of Americans every single day. Vaccine development must be an essential focus in this fight, and the safety of the vaccines that have been approved is without question. While the timetable of their development was record-shattering, both of the approved vaccine technologies did not compromise any of the rigorous safety benchmarks imposed by the FDA, and they both passed all independent safety assessments as well. This success is a testament to the power of human cooperative ingenuity and perseverance in the face of crisis! Criticism, questioning, and even skepticism are essential — both in science and our lives. However, in matters of life and death, when doubts and double-checking give way to denial and deception, once-prophetic voices become profoundly problematic.
Further investigation, via a quick Google search, shows that Dr. Nass and Dr. Lyons-Weiler both have a history of promoting a conspiracy theory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus either originated or was altered by humans as a bioweapon in a laboratory in China. Dr. Nass was interviewed on the misinformation video “Plandemic: Indoctrination” about this topic and is on record saying that, from early on in the pandemic, she has believed the virus was a laboratory-designed organism. These unfounded allegations have been rebutted, debunked and disproved by countless experts in numerous fields of study, both in China and the United States, as well as around the world. This statement about the virus is not true. Period. As people seeking truth, we have a responsibility to call out and refute this disinformation before it needlessly increases the myriad accusations and fears already swirling in our pandemic-exhausted hearts.
While the topic of the origin of the virus did not come up in the panel, tensions reached their height when the panelists spoke about the degree of immunity provided by the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Nass claimed that the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines did not offer the same level of protection as “natural immunity” after surviving a viral infection. As the purpose of vaccination is to prevent potentially fatal viral infection, this claim is not even logical to begin with, but it is also simply not true. Another panelist, Westmont biology professor Dr. Steve Julio, responded to this claim by flat-out refuting the statement and explaining that these vaccines have not only demonstrated equal immune protection as natural resistance, but they also literally introduce the exact instructions into your body for how to fight the virus. This exchange was cut short by the panel moderators calling time because the event had already been running for nearly one hundred minutes. Many students, myself included, were left feeling overwhelmed, heated, confused and uncertain after the Zoom call ended.
After the event, I spent time processing and continuing the discussion with my friends, as well as spending a decent amount of my genetics class the next day exploring questions with my professor, who was also at the panel. As a biology major myself, I respect and admire the powerful beauty of the scientific process in answering questions about the world, especially questions that have the propensity to save the lives of people I love. I am disheartened to see that process circumvented or called into question, especially because solid science is the key to helping us move beyond the pandemic. I hope that Westmont as an institution can continue to be a place where debate and discussion are healthy and lead us in the pursuit of truth, both spiritually and scientifically. We must be united in our goal of attacking this virus on all fronts — with safe vaccines, practical antiviral drugs, and diligent physical distancing protocols. We must be patient enough to love others in the face of criticism and disagreement as we continue to learn more. We must be humble enough to admit when we have been wrong and, most of all, we must be committed to truthfulness in our science and scholarship. Not only because we will honor those who we have lost to this virus, but also because, in pursuing truth, we pursue Christ himself.