Dear UD: A letter from the Biology Department

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Photo courtesy of BeLynn Hollers

The following assessment addresses the science behind vaccines and masking. Detailed scientific information is included from sources based on peer-reviewed research publications in reputable scientific journals. It is not intended as a commentary on policies, mandates or individual choices.

In the span of less than two years the COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 648,000 people in the U.S. and more than 4.55 million worldwide. As the pandemic continues to rage, many of us in the University of Dallas community are asking when things will be able to return to normal. Vaccines are the single most effective way to prevent infectious disease and masking is a simple and effective method of reducing disease transmission. 

Here, the science faculty at the University of Dallas will address questions and concerns about these methods of disease control and prevention. Their adoption is essential to safely continuing hallmarks of the UD experience, including on ground education and celebrating traditions like Groundhog.

Mask Effectiveness

Filtration is an effective means of microbial control. If you have a membrane with 5uM pores, objects larger than 5uM will not be able to pass through it. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, the causative agent of COVID-19, travels on respiratory droplets. The replication rate of the virus, also referred to as the R0, is ~2.5 for ancestral variants and ~5 for the Delta variant, meaning that on average each infected person will pass their infection to 2.5 to 5 other people. 

This R0 is low enough that exposure to several respiratory droplets larger than 5uM is necessary to carry enough viral particles to overwhelm someone’s immune system. Droplet nuclei larger than 5uM typically travel distances shorter than 3 feet before gravity pulls them to the ground. Smaller droplets can remain airborne for hours, but require a much higher R0 to be infectious. 

Even if other factors reduced the effectiveness of wearing a mask to 50%, the risk of transmission between two people wearing masks would be reduced by 75%. 

If the SARS-CoV-2 virus was a true airborne pathogen, like the measles virus which has an R0 of 18, filtering the larger droplets would still be an effective means at reducing transmission. Interestingly, measles, the single most contagious human infectious disease, went from 4 million cases a year in 1963 to fewer than 100 cases by the year 2000 due to herd immunity established by the measles vaccine.

Vaccine Safety 

The Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Over 371 million doses of the COVID vaccines have been administered in the US and 5.3 billion worldwide.

Between these doses, and the clinical trials that preceded them, there has been ample opportunity to identify possible adverse effects of the vaccines. The COVID-19 vaccine safety surveillance network is so sensitive that 28 cases of blood clots out of 8.7 million administered doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were enough to be detected and led to a temporary halt in distribution. The sheer number of vaccine doses delivered in the past year with so few side effects should reassure us that there is minimal risk from these vaccines.

However, myths persist. One of the most persistent is that the COVID-19 vaccines can lead to difficulty conceiving a child. Not only is there no difference in fertility between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, this August two studies in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology Maternal-Fetal Medicine determined that pregnancy outcomes are better for women who are vaccinated. 

Other myths concern the rapid development of the vaccines and worries about damage to DNA.  The Pfizer vaccine recently received full FDA approval, with the only change to the approval process being an overlap of phase 2 and phase 3 trials, and no pause between the end of phase 1 and the start of phase 2/3. 

Vaccine development was not rushed. The liposome delivery mechanism and the mRNA technology used have been under development for decades. An unprecedented amount of man-hours and dollars, $25 billion from Operation Warp Speed and the European Commission alone, were spent in their development. The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines cannot alter your DNA. The “central dogma of genetics” is “DNA is transcribed into RNA, RNA is translated into protein,” meaning information only flows from DNA to RNA in the human body.

There are legitimate health concerns for the use of any pharmaceutical. In 2012 The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science formed a committee to analyze every peer-reviewed scientific journal article citing an adverse effect of a childhood vaccine recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), producing the manuscript Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality. The common adverse effects for vaccines identified were allergic reaction and mild toxicity, which can result in redness and soreness at the injection site. 

In the extreme, this can lead to anaphylactic shock, which is why recipients must receive the COVID-19 vaccines while under the supervision of a healthcare provider. This risk of anaphylactic shock is lower than 1 in 1 million. 

Vaccines also carry a risk of febrile seizure, convulsions induced by a fever over 100.4ºF. This risk is approximately 0.0003%, and while terrifying to witness, febrile seizures do not cause permanent damage, lasting harm, or increase susceptibility to developing seizure disorders. In fact, vaccination can protect against febrile seizure as COVID-19 infection itself carries a greater risk. 

Similarly, a 0.000047% elevated risk of myocarditis has been reported in those who received a mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, with the risk of myocarditis from COVID-19 infection sixteen times higher.  

Historically, the long-term risk of traditional inactivated and attenuated vaccines has been limited to a ~1 in 3 million chance of developing an autoimmune disorder due to cross reactivity of the resulting antibodies. Risk of naturally acquired infection carries this same risk, as the proteins in these whole organism vaccines are the same as the pathogen itself, and may number in the thousands. 

The nature of the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines and the Johnson & Johnson vector vaccine eliminates this risk, as the spike protein encoded in the vaccines was not only chosen for its ability to produce protective antibodies, but its inability to produce cross reactive antibodies. This work is based on computer algorithms, sequence analysis, and in vitro testing, and does not need decades to explore.

Vaccine Support by the Catholic Church

There are no fetal parts in the vaccines. While the HEK-293 and PER.C6 cell lines descended from embryonic stem cells isolated from aborted tissue in 1972 and 1985, respectively, they are thousands of generations removed and do not contain any material from a fetus. More importantly, they are not used during the production of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. 

HEK-293 was used separately to test the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine during development and PER.C6 was used during the development of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

The Pontifical Academy for Life, an academic institution under the direction of the Holy See and dedicated to promoting the Catholic Church’s consistent life ethic, explored the challenging moral issue of receiving vaccines that utilized these cell lines in 2005. In December 2020 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith again explored the issue, specifically examining the COVID-19 vaccines. 

The Pontifical Academy for Life’s 2005 review, Moral Reflections On Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses, concludes that while there is a moral obligation to use alternative vaccines when available and to pressure researchers and pharmaceutical companies to use different cell lines, we are “morally justified as an extrema ratio due to the necessity to provide for the good of one’s children and of the people who come in contact with the children.” 

Of the unvaccinated they conclude “to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk…  is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.” 

On the specific issue of the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccines The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2020 document Note on the morality of using some anti-COVID vaccines states “the moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger… it must therefore be considered that, in such a case, all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.” 

This document adds that vaccination is voluntary, and not a moral obligation, but also states, “Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.” 

Citing this document in a March 2021 press release, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated, “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process” and While we should continue to insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines, given the world-wide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.” Days later, Bishop Burns, of the Diocese of Dallas and Chancellor of the University of Dallas, concurred with this statement in a statement of his own.

Variants and Vaccine Urgency

The vaccines are effective against ancestral variants, current variants of concern like Delta, and newly emerging variants of interest like Mu. While COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Israel, a global leader in vaccination rates, their hospitalizations and ICU admissions are not seeing the same increase. Serious cases are 9x higher in the unvaccinated. This increase in cases is likely because Israel was ahead of the curve with vaccinations, and six months in that protection is starting to diminish, though only enough to allow mild and moderate cases, and Delta is now infecting Israel’s unvaccinated young. 

Concerns about waning protection is why we are now seeing discussions about vaccine boosters. The spike protein expressed in the mRNA and vector vaccines was specifically chosen because the proteins the antibodies are generated against are essential to the viability and virulence of the virus. This means that the vaccines should protect against any new variant that is still capable of infecting human cells. The need for higher vaccine adoption rates is still urgent. The longer the pandemic continues, the greater the risk of viral evolution finding a work-around.

The pandemic is quickly becoming one of the unvaccinated. In week 34 (8/23/2021- 8/29/21) Dallas County Health and Human Services reported that ~85% of COVID positives were residents that were not fully vaccinated. Over the course of the pandemic only 3% of COVID breakthrough cases in Dallas have been hospitalized and only 0.005% of breakthrough cases in Dallas have died. 

It is inaccurate, and now certainly incorrect to think that COVID-19 does not impact the young. 

In recent weeks, the major pediatric healthcare systems in Dallas and Fort Worth, Children’s Health Dallas and Cook Children’s Healthcare System, respectively, have both reported an increase in pediatric cases and a shortage of ICU beds. 

In a September 1, 2021 virtual press conference, Cook Children’s Emergency Medical Director stated “Delta changed everything. Delta loves kids…The storyline that this doesn’t affect children just isn’t true anymore… If you want your kid to get sick, send them to school without a mask. It is not a case of if they get sick, but when.” 

The Medical Director of Urgent Care Services stated, “We need some compassion from the community… This is an illness that is absolutely affecting our children. We are hitting a crisis mode.” Even when illness in the young does not result in severe symptoms or hospitalizations, it can often result in missed time in the classroom, a serious concern for a college campus. 

Studies have demonstrated that even those who have had COVID-19 benefit from vaccination, generating an even stronger antibody response. For some younger people, the symptoms of COVID-19 last for more than just a few weeks. We are learning more and more about “long COVID” and the symptoms and effects that persist for several months. These symptoms include debilitating fatigue, onset or increase of anxiety and depression, and persistent brain fog, which are especially concerning for students and early career professionals. Vaccination greatly reduces an individual’s risk of death, serious illness, or long COVID. 

Vaccination within a community is also the best path to achieve herd immunity. Trying to achieve herd immunity through natural exposure not only means unnecessary illness with a potentially lethal and debilitating disease, but specifically for UD it means enough students in isolation that we end up going virtual. While UD is not a true bubble, we are more insular than most college campuses, and a 70% vaccination rate would leave us with few enough cases to never pause on ground classes or cancel any campus events.

Historical Perspective on Mis- and Disinformation

There has always been push back when microbial control methods have entered the mainstream. In 1847 Ignaz Semmelweis, a physician at the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, introduced the practice of handwashing to lower maternal mortality rates. 

The First Clinic was serviced by physicians and medical school students who also had contact with cadavers in the morgue, while the Second Clinic, which had significantly lower maternal mortality rates, was serviced by Midwives. Rates dropped from ~10% to 1% in the First Clinic after the introduction of handwashing; nevertheless, Ignaz Semmelweis’ ideas were rejected by the medical community and he was forced out of his position at the hospital. 

The spread of myth and misinformation predates social media. A retelling of a 1854 cholera outbreak in London, 2020 UD Read’s book “The Ghost Map” proclaims “Ordinary people had long cultivated their folk remedies and homespun diagnosis, but until newspapers came along, they didn’t have a forum beyond word of mouth to share their discoveries.” The book documents John Snow’s discovery that a water well is responsible for the epidemic, ending it by simply removing the water pump’s handle. It omits that city officials, offended at the suggestion that their water source was dirty, replaced the handle shortly afterwards. 

Disinformation, which unlike misinformation is spread with the intent to harm and deceive, is slightly newer, at least in medicine. 

During the Cold War, in an effort to undermine the United States’ credibility, the KGB’s Operation Denver tried to convince the international community that the US genetically engineered the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the causative agent of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), at the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The campaign contended that the US tested the new virus on the population of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, under the guise of providing a cholera vaccine. 

Later, concerns about the impact of HIV on fertility morphed into conspiracy theories that AIDS medication from US aid workers caused infertility. This gave rise to weaponized health communication and the myths and conspiracy theories now have a life of their own, spreading to every epidemic disease. 

In response to the CIA using a fake vaccine campaign to gain access to houses and ultimately locate Osama bin Laden, and to prevent cooperation with future aid workers, anti-American forces are now telling communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan that there are pig parts in the polio vaccine and that it is part of a US effort to sterilize the population. Polio is endemic to only two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been eliminated everywhere else in the world.

The UD Community

The UD mission states, “The University of Dallas is dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom, of truth, and of virtue as the proper and primary ends of education. The University seeks to educate its students so they may develop the intellectual and moral virtues, prepare themselves for life and work in a problematic and changing world, and become leaders able to act responsibly for their own good and for the good of their family, community, country, and church.”

Here, objective truth can be found in the science. The COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and morally licit. Masks are simple and effective means of preventing disease transmission. Wisdom implores us to utilize multiple strategies in our efforts to control spread. Virtue asks us to consider the members of the UD community that live in multi-generational homes with elderly parents and children too young to be vaccinated, have underlying conditions, are immunocompromised, or are otherwise vulnerable.

As science faculty we have each devoted the entirety of our adult lives to understanding the science discussed above and who have dedicated our professional careers to the education of others. As stakeholders in the health and wellbeing of the UD community we will be holding a COVID panel on September 23rd at 6pm in SB Hall Multipurpose Room.

For more information please visit the Cowan-Blakely Memorial Library COVID Library Guide: COVID Resources https://udallas.libguides.com/c.php?g=1011387&p=8550252

Regards,

William L. Cody, Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Chair

Department of Biology

Carla Pezzia, M.P.H., Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Chair

Department of Human and Social Sciences

Associate Professor

Department of Biology

Deanna Soper, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Biology

Drew Stenesen, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Biology

Inimary Toby, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Biology

Sunny Scobell, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Biology

Saadia Bihmidine, Ph.D.

Affiliate Assistant Professor

Department of Biology

Ellen Steinmiller, Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Chair

Department of Chemistry

Jonathan E. Dannatt, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Chemistry

David Catlett, Ph.D. 

Distinguished Affiliate Professor

Department of Chemistry

Jacob Moldenhauer, Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Chair

Department of Physics

Richard P. Olenick, Ph.D.

Professor 

Department of Physics

Sally F. Hicks, Ph.D.

Professor

Department of Physics

Levente Borvák, Ph.D. 

Affiliate Assistant Professor 

Department of Physics

Said Bakkar, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow

Department of Physics

Dennis Sepper, Ph.D.

Professor

Department of Human and Social Sciences

Charles Sullivan, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

Department of Human and Social Sciences

Amy Fisher-Smith, Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Chair

Department of Psychology

Gilbert Garza, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

Department of Psychology

Brittany Landrum, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Psychology

Scott Churchill, Ph.D.

Professor

Department of Psychology

Stephanie Swales, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

Department of Psychology

John K. Osoinach, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor and Chair

Department of Mathematics

D. Paul Phillips, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

Department of Mathematics

Tori Hudgins, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow

Department of Mathematics

4 COMMENTS

  1. I commend the science faculty for this outstanding analysis and thoughtful discussion. I am a family physician, UD graduate, and current member of the Texas Medical Association’s Covid task force. The only thing that has ever eliminated an infectious disease is,in fact, vaccination.

  2. Super inspiring to see the leaders of our Biology community put forth this statement. Although there will be conflicting views, maybe expressed angrily, I hope that this will convince anyone on the edge to get their vaccine. Thank you for this work!

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