On March 15, a panel of Wesleyan faculty and staff experts discussed the importance of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine during a campus-wide webinar titled “Why Get Vaccinated?”
Speakers included Dr. Thomas McLarney, medical director of Davison Health Center; Donald Oliver, Daniel Ayres Professor of Biology, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry; Ishita Mukerji, Fisk Professor of Natural Science, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry; William Johnston, John E. Andrus Professor of History; and Frederick Cohan, Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment, professor of biology. Janice Naegele, Alan M. Dachs Professor of Science, professor of biology, and Dean of the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division moderated the discussion and welcomed questions from the audience.
The full webinar is available online here. Additional information is available on Wesleyan’s Keep Wes Safe website.
Dr. Tom McLarney asked the Wesleyan community to dispel COVID-19 vaccine myths and rumors, and trust the science. “We’re not only [taking the vaccine] for our own cells as individuals, but to protect our community,” he said. McLarney also described and stressed the importance of establishing “herd immunity” through vaccinations. “This means that when a certain population—whether it’s a campus population, the state of Connecticut, our country, or the world—reaches a certain percentage, and the experts are talking about around 75 to 80% of the population being immunized, we’re going to halt this disease to a great extent, so this is certainly one of our goals.”
“Viruses are inanimate microscopic machines waiting to spring to life to replicate themselves once they’re inside our cells,” Don Oliver explained. “They’re a tiny replication machine that uses our own cells for their own selfish ends to propagate. Indeed, viruses are masters of immune system manipulation and sabotage, and this coronavirus is no exception. Once the viral DNA or RNA is inside the cell, then its genetic program unfolds and the ultimate aim of the virus is to make as many viruses as possible.” Oliver also noted that respiratory distress syndrome is the major cause of COVID-19 deaths. “We mourn the loss of over 534,000 Americans and 2.65 million people worldwide who died of this disease, leaving behind all their loved ones.” The vaccine, he said, “gives our body the upper hand in fighting this terrible virus.”
Isita Mukerji explained how the rapid development of the vaccine was built on decades of research, how genes are expressed, and what would be a promising target for the vaccine.
Bill Johnston provided a brief historical perspective on anti-vaccination stances and offered suggestions for overcoming vaccine hesitation. He showed several posters and photographs that had been used throughout history to persuade people not to get vaccinated.
“There are those people who are adamant, who are saying ‘no matter what you tell me, I am not going to get a vaccine,’ but they tend to be quite a small percentage. A larger percentage is people who are skeptical, often for religious or political reasons. But then there are people who are just unsure, and these tend to be people who are open to listening to the pros and cons,” Johnson said. “For the religiously or politically skeptical, just listening to the reasons for their skepticism, giving them a fair audience without recrimination or ridicule, can open them up to persuasion as well. Often, they need to feel that their concerns have been heard, and once they have been heard, they become willing to listen.”
Fred Cohan showed a model of herd immunity. “I want to give people a sense of hopefulness. That is, [eradicating COVID-19] is something that’s possible,” Cohan said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s an awful disease. We made some technological breakthroughs and it’s likely with political will and more technology we could actually put an end to this forever.”