Herd Immunity Versus Herd Insanity

by James A. Bacon

Like 450 other higher-ed institutions across the United States, the University of Virginia will require all students to be fully vaccinated for the COVID-19 vaccine if they want to return to classes this fall. The mandate extends to the 2,800 students who got the virus and now enjoy acquired immunities. Oddly, the mandate does not include university employees, even though they are older on average and more likely to catch and spread the virus.

Virginia may be reaching herd immunity as the number of confirmed cases rapidly approaches zero, but UVa can be fairly said to have reached herd insanity — the phenomenon of following other colleges and universities issuing vaccine mandates because everyone is issuing them.

A couple of days ago I wrote a post asking the university to reveal UVa President Jim Ryan’s justification for asking the Board of Visitors to approve the mandate. No explanation is forthcoming. The university says that the president’s “working papers” are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Judging by the comments on that post (150 at this point), readers were more fixated on the scientific and moral dimensions of the policy than UVa’s lack of transparency, so I turn to that issue today.

While pro- and anti-mandate advocates were contending on Bacon’s Rebellion, Aaron Kheriaty and Gerard F. Bradley published a column in the Wall Street Journal that clarified several aspects of the debate.

Schools have long required vaccinations against infectious disease, but the COVID-19 mandates are unprecedented, Kheriaty and Bradley write. “Never before have colleges and insisted that students or employees receive an experimental vaccine as a condition of attendance or employment.”

The Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines underwent an accelerated approval process in a desperate bid to halt the spread of the virus. They were issued Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) based on testing that was extensive but not as rigorous as normal Food and Drug Administration clinical trials. Given the scope of the emergency, federal authorities deemed the massive benefits of taking the vaccine to be worth the relatively minor risks associated the vaccine itself.

But as Kheriaty and Bradley point out, the risks run by naturally immunized students are trivial. They shred comparisons between the university mandates and childhood immunization programs.

Universities might counter that — as with elementary schools requiring pediatric vaccinations — immunization is for students’ own good. but children can be at significant medical risks from the illnesses that we vaccinate them against, particularly when community vaccination rates are low. Not so with Covid. For those under 30, the risks of serious morbidity and mortality are close to zero.

What kind of risks? A June 10 review by the FSA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee indicated at least one: an “excess risk for heart inflammation, especially in men 30 and younger.”

Likewise, indiscriminate vaccine mandates ignore the fact that thousands of students who have recovered from COVID infection have acquired immunities “more robust and durable” than those provided by the vaccine. Why should students who are at near-zero risk expose themselves to the risks, minor though they may be, that are associated with the vaccine?

University leaders might claim that the mandates are necessary to make faculty, staff and students “feel safe” enough to reopen. Kheriaty and Bradley describe that logic as a “psychological placebo.” “Requiring the naturally immune to be vaccinated doesn’t make anyone actually safer.”

In closing, the authors offer a moral argument against the mandates. Compelling people to get vaccinations before the vaccines have been fully approved by the FDA amounts to the commandeering of populations for research without their consent — a practice that is otherwise universally frowned upon. Informed consent, they argue, “is arguably the most deeply rooted doctrine in contemporary medical ethics.”

UVa’s unwillingness to be transparent about the thinking behind its vaccine mandate leaves members of the university community wondering if Ryan & Company considered any of the issues that Kheriaty and Bradley raised. Did UVa leadership contemplate the option of allowing COVID survivors — as confirmed by the university’s own tests — to forego the vaccination? Did leadership wrestle with the contradiction of mandating the vaccination for students but not for employees? Did it occur to anyone that there might be ethical implications to the decision?

We’ll never know because UVa won’t tell us. We might as well be trying to pry the truth about COVID-19 origins from the Communists Chinese