Mayo’s lead vaccine researcher: Misinformation impeding battle against COVID

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According to Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Center, a key skill necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19 is the ability to separate fact from fiction.

“In fact, your life and those of your loved ones depends on it,” he told an online audience Friday during a community forum called “Ending the Pandemic of Misinformation and Misperception.”

Poland is a leading voice on the scientific evidence supporting the benefit of COVID-19 vaccines.  He has chaired or been a member of every federal committee involved in vaccine decision-making, including the National Vaccine Advisory Committee (NVAC), Vaccine and Related Biological Advisory Committee (VRBAC), and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). He is regularly featured in national news stories by NBC News, USA Today, Business Insider and others.

Poland stressed the need to use scientific data to balance risks with benefits in forming opinions in an environment where unverified and false information about COVID and vaccines has run rampant on social media and in other outlets, resulting in confusion and division among the population.

The presentation aired as the new Delta variant is contributing to wide community spread and mirroring what occurred last fall, with the number of deaths due to the virus once again on the rise.

According to Poland, the highly-transmissible Delta variant is now responsible for 99% of cases where it was less than 1% of cases in May. Most hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID are among the unvaccinated and the new surge is inundating already busy hospitals, leading to staff fatigue and shortages.

Poland said 27% of all new cases are in children and adolescents, with 250,000 new cases identified in that population two weeks ago.

The difference between last fall and now is the availability of FDA approved vaccinations.

“Widespread vaccination is our best hope and we’re seeing progress worldwide,” said Poland.

However, despite the scientific evidence of the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines, 30% of American adults have said there are no circumstances under which they would accept a vaccine.

Poland attributes that partly to the narcissistic society we live in, “me as opposed to we.” He compares the U.S. to other societies, particularly in Asia,  where people regularly wear masks to protect their fellow citizens.

“If you abandon science as a way to determine truth, you enter into a world hurt,” he said, pointing to human behavior as the major distorting factor. That behavior includes the democratization of expertise, the idea that everybody is a scientist and their ideas are equally valid.

“People form beliefs before they even have the data and then they accept the explanation that supports their beliefs and reject those that don’t,”

While he said no vaccine is 100% effective or 100% safe, it is necessary to weigh the risks and benefits using scientific data.

That data shows a need for layers of mitigation to end the pandemic, including vaccines and masking while indoors or at crowded outdoor venues. Abandoning those methods has allowed the evolution of the virus into variants that have already developed the ability to escape in part, both vaccine induced immunity and the immunity from already having contracted COVID, said Poland.

He added that no other vaccine in history has been studied to the degree and rigor of the COVID-19 vaccines prior to their release.

“No vaccine is 100% safe but choosing not to get vaccinated is far less safe,” he said. “So, which risk are you going to accept.”

Poland ended his presentation, saying, “We are in a desperate but unseen and barely noticed race of variant versus health and we are very much losing the game. To know, in this case, is science. To believe one knows absent data is simply ignorance."

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