A letter to my vaccine-hesitant friends

A few weeks ago, I discovered that some of my friends – you know who you are – weren’t planning to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Some of you said you lacked trust in the evidence provided for the safety of vaccines. On the other hand, you were confident about alternative therapies, mostly Ivermectin.

I’ll admit to having had my own vaccine hesitancy back in January, when the vaccines first came out. But with 5.7 billion people (and counting) providing data on the vaccines, I feel now there’s a very sound basis on which to evaluate benefit versus risk.  And my conclusion is clearly on the side of benefit.

Still, you raised issues that were worthy of exploration. Given that the shingle above my door reads “science communicator”, I told you I’d do some research and get back to you.

Journalism holds that it’s better to show than tell.  So this is a kind of “journey inside Ella Finkel” to show why I think the way I do.

I do hope this journey will take you to the same place I’ve arrived. It’s not often that I’ve felt that communicating science is a matter of life and death. I feel it is the case now.  

We all need good information for making grave decisions that affect ourselves and our community – most poignantly the unvaccinated children around us. Our decisions today will also determine our long-term prospects for a return to normality.

So here is the information I’ve gathered about the safety of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines – the ones now available to us in Australia – and Ivermectin.

Whether it was the first polio vaccine or the vaccine against the latest flu strain, the calculation is always: does the benefit outweigh the risk?

Let me say upfront: there is no way anyone can guarantee 100% safety for a vaccine. That’s true for the current crop of COVID vaccines, but it’s also true for any vaccine against a new pathogen. Whether it was the first polio vaccine or the vaccine against the latest flu strain, the calculation is always: does the benefit outweigh the risk?

Health authorities around the world – and especially ours – are on high alert for serious adverse effects. They’ve found some and they are rare – unusual blood clots and heart inflammation. Most of the cases are mild, treatable and leave people unharmed.

A COVID infection, on the other hand, increases your chance of a blood clot to the lung by 12-fold and a heart attack more than four-fold. Your overall risk of dying from COVID if infected, based on the latest data from Sydney, is 1%. If you’re over 70, make that 4%.   

But bear in mind, it’s not just the risk of vaccines that we accept. No drug is 100% safe. Ten people die of Paracetamol poisoning in Australia each year.

And it’s odd that some of us expect 100% safety from a vaccine but are prepared to overlook the risks of taking Ivermectin. We only know that Ivermectin is safe when it is taken as worming medication, usually 12 mg as a single dose, maybe repeated in three months or a year. Is it safe taken long term or at higher dosages? How effective is it at protecting you from severe illness or death from the Delta strain of COVID?

While some folks are blithely proclaiming it a cure, elsewhere the reports of poisonings are rolling in. I can tell you what the risks and benefits are for the vaccines. No one can tell you what they are for Ivermectin. Hopefully, that should change in a few months’ time when large and rigorous randomised controlled trials underway in Oxford, Canada and the US report their findings.

These trials are looking hard for cheap, widely used drugs to ‘repurpose’ for treating COVID. They’ve already found at least four: remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed against Ebola; dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug; budesonide, an inhaled steroid used for asthma; and recent hints that fluvoxamine, an anti-depressant, could be helpful.

Bear in mind, people with letters after their name do get things wrong.

The most likely reason Ivermectin is taking such a long time to prove its credentials is probably because it has a small effect, if any at all.

Another thing that’s flummoxed many of my friends is the individual scientists and doctors who make contrarian claims. For instance: that the COVID-19 virus is not that harmful, that vaccines and masks are, and that Ivermectin is the cure.

Bear in mind, people with letters after their name do get things wrong. Peter Duesberg, a virologist from the University of California, Berkeley claimed for years that the HIV virus was not the cause of AIDS. The many millions of people surviving thanks to anti-viral medication would disagree.

In covering science stories for many decades now, I’ve learnt not to follow people but the data.

Read on for a guided tour.

YOUR COVID TOOLBOX: This article is one of a five-part series where Cosmos editor-at-large Elizabeth Finkel hunts down all the facts and figures you need to understand COVID-19 vaccines.

Please login to favourite this article.