This is a recurring argument lately – one seen in scary newspaper stories and all over your extended family’s Facebook posts – that the vaccines are too recent, too little tested; that we do not know the long-term effects of these authorized shots for emergency use. You can now even buy t-shirts, perhaps to wear on your next uprising, that say “I’m not a lab rat” and feature a vaccine vial with a line across. But can I suggest that an escalation of the pandemic that has already killed over 600,000 of your fellow Americans isn’t this the best time to develop such a unique position on bodily autonomy? Instead, take the advice of a real lab rat: don’t be afraid to be a COVID vaccine lab rat.
In April, a CNN poll estimated that 26% of adults said they would not get the COVID vaccine. You will never believe what happened next! The reasons for vaccine reluctance are not unique or even entirely partisan. We are faced with an onslaught of causes ranging from misinformation to youthful pride; as FiveThirtyEight reported last month, “the younger the age group, the less likely it is to be vaccinated relative to its share of the population. These are also very legitimate historical and contemporary reasons to be skeptical of our healthcare industry. It’s not like the record is so good here.
The United States has done atrocious acts in the name of scientific progress – the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the first trials of combination contraceptive pills in Puerto Rico, the list goes on. Time and time again, the most vulnerable have been treated with callous, intentional and often fatal contempt. And although these shameful acts are a part of our past, we live in a present moment when we must count on the devastation caused by the opioid epidemic. pharmaceutical fraud in business.
And yet, you can be careful and hold authority figures accountable and minimize your risk of near death at that point. These are all good goals. Urgent crises call for unprecedented action. The rewards – not dying breathlessly, unable even to hold the hand of a loved one – outweigh the current risks. Under extraordinary circumstances, being a so-called lab rat can be a good deal.
I’ve been one for almost a decade now. In 2011, I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma and became one of the first ten people in the world to participate in a combination immunotherapy clinical trial. Of the 52 of us in the initial group, “adverse events of any grade, whether or not attributed to treatment, were observed in 98% of patients,” while “treatment-related adverse events were observed in 93% of patients. More than half of the patients experienced Grade 3 or 4 (serious) treatment-related adverse events. My own side effects included dizziness, rash, fatigue, and not dying from cancer. Twelve weeks after the start of the trial, I had no signs of illness. Ten years later, analysis of more than a hundred similar immunotherapy trials shows an estimated mortality rate “ranging from 0.36% to 1.23%”. I would take those chances.
Over the years, my two daughters have also participated in trials, one for a mental health study and one for a device for heart disease. Meanwhile, I went back to school to try and crack the code to make clinical trials more accessible and patient-centered. What I can tell you from my own experience and my work is that the system is messed up and we have to be able to trust and respect each other if we are to survive. We cannot come up with something that even looks like a new normal as those with no compelling medical excuse or accessibility continue to, as Amanda Marcotte puts it, “selfishly refusing the blow”. And it hurts my heart that there are people with life-threatening conditions right now advocate for access to unapproved treatments, while the stubborn ignorant fight for their right to prolong a pandemic.
My friend Stacey, a yoga teacher in Manhattan, took part in one of Astra Zeneca’s trials late last year. “I have a friend who is a nurse and works in drug trials at the New York Presbyterian,” she recalled recently. “He came to see me in November and said, ‘We’re starting over for the test. I thought to myself if that means I’m getting the vaccine early, that’s fine. That being said, “she adds,” my teenage son wanted to do it and I wouldn’t have let him. I would have felt bad if he had had an adverse reaction. “
My friend ended up getting the placebo and was later released so she could go ahead and get the full shot. What she – and her son – did. “That’s what all these trials are for,” she said. “For about a year, people have been doing these tests. The people who get the vaccine now are not the first. Millions of people have received it. Some have side effects. But it’s still protection against something that might kill you, or affect the people around you. “
Writing in Vogue last year, Molly Jong-Fast, who participated in the Pfizer lawsuit, expressed a similar sentiment. “As someone who has struggled with health anxiety, participating in a medical trial was not an obvious life choice. But I felt I had to do it,” she said. “I am not a particularly brave person, but in a country where the spread of the virus is unchecked, I would much rather try my luck with the vaccine than with the virus. “ It’s a choice, she notes, that also lowers risk for others.
Nothing in life is guaranteed. I have to shake my head in amazement when I see commentators spuriously protesting that we just don’t know how these vaccines will affect us ten or twenty years from now. There are people who are dying today. I tried my luck in a clinical trial when I probably had a few months left to live. Whatever the long-term effects of this experience and however long the supervision I have signed up for, it has given me these last ten years to raise my children. I went for the Pfizer vaccine in March, spent a day feeling like hell and accepting this small price to pay to have more days with my family. It is not abstract; it’s the simple math most of us can do. If anything in my health goes wrong in ten or twenty years because I got the vaccine in 2021, I will consider myself extremely lucky.
Last month, a neighbor and her whole family had groundbreaking cases of the virus. It was a real trash fire. Her sister still refuses to be vaccinated. My friend told me a few days ago that she tried to explain to her sister that yes, they got the vaccine and they got sick, but no one had to go to intensive care. Nobody died. Your best option isn’t always perfect. But the choice between improving it and making it worse, for everyone, is very clear. And right now, I’d much rather be a lab rat than a name on a gravestone. Is not it ?
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