The Lonely Immunity of the COVID Vaccine

An internal medicine resident sits in a waiting area before receiving a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

I never saw myself as the kind of person who would take an unproven medical treatment. I never understood how something like a clinical trial of a non-life-saving experimental drug filled up. And yet, on December 11, when the FDA announced it approved the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, I knew the news was coming, because I was one of the first people on Earth to have received it.

I first heard about the vaccine trial in August from my friend Ben tenOever, the director of the Virus Engineering Center for Therapeutics and Research Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He mentioned that they were looking for volunteers to take part in the study. That statement alone is something I could have let pass — a bit of conversational flotsam floating on by — but Ben mentioned the trial in front of my two boys, Lucky who is 9 and Georgie who is 6.

“You should do it, Dad. You could help save the world,” they said.

For all of their pre-COVID lives, my kids had seen me as somebody who could solve any problem that came the family’s way. The virus, of course, capsized that notion, leaving them helplessly treading water in a world of masks, hand sanitizer, and Zoom school that I could do nothing to change. So right then, in front of my boys, I told Ben to sign me up in the hopes that I could show them that there were still things regular people could do to help society.

Three weeks later, there I was on the eighth floor of Mount Sinai in a nondescript waiting room thumbing through my newsfeed. I’m not sure what I expected — retina scans administered by suit-wearing Federal agents — but sitting there did feel very routine, almost like I was waiting for a dental hygienist to call my name. Even when I was taken to the exam room by a nurse, the process continued unremarkably. I was asked a series of questions: Any fever, coughs, loss of taste or smell? Been around anybody known to have COVID? It was, in fact, the exact same set of questions I was asked by the people at Chelsea Piers before a leisurely day at the driving range.

That’s when she handed me the “Informed Consent” form — a 26-page tome of facts and disclaimers — and suddenly the whole process got very real. It took thousands of words to say something as simple as: “We don’t know what this will do to you. It may paralyze you, blind you, you may die, but whatever happens, it’s on you and you’re without recourse,” but it did. And then I was politely asked, “Do you have any questions?”

I laughed and signed my name. The nurse injected me with a rather ordinary-looking needle, asked me to stay in the waiting room for an hour just in case something happened to me, and then sent me on my way.

As I lay in bed that night, I wasn’t quite sure what I was hoping for. I’d read in the consent form that the side effects could be severe (high fevers, hallucinations, heart palpitations) and while I didn’t want any of those things, since this was a double-blind placebo study, there was a 50-50 chance that I’d just gotten a feckless shot of saline solution. The thought of feeling nothing was almost worse. When I woke up the next day, the injection site was a little sore, but I was unsure if that was wishful thinking.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine comes in two doses, three weeks apart. So as I waited for my next appointment, I read as much as I could about the vaccine trial. What I saw online was frightening. There were unverified reports of the vaccine altering your DNA, leaving people deaf, needing heart transplants, somebody wrote that it killed an entire family in Manchester. We’ve all just lived through the 2020 election, so the idea that there was fake news and disinformation out there wasn’t shocking to me. But, even still, clicking link after link did give me some hesitancy about going back for my second shot.

I went back anyway. On my walk home from the hospital, though, I was besieged by a pulsing headache that felt like a cross between the world’s worst hangover and a debilitating migraine. Most alarming was that for the next six hours, the pain got worse and worse to the point that I began to dial the emergency number the study provided when the pain suddenly stopped, never to return.

The experience had been so acute and so fleeting that I began to wonder if the fake news and disinformation had gotten the best of me. Was the headache just a psychosomatic reaction? I called Ben and told him that I was going to get an antibody test to see if I had indeed gotten the real vaccine; he offered to run the antibody test for me. So the two of us sat outside our kids’ school in my car, and in what seemed like a vampiric drug deal, Ben jabbed at my finger with a needle, taking a small vial of my blood for the test.

He called me the next day with the news that I was ripe with COVID antibodies. While I wasn’t sure how I was going to react to either result, the sense of relief I got from hearing that I had the antibodies  was like nothing I’d ever experienced in my life.

Ever since those terrifying early days of the virus I, like most of us, have been living like a 19th-century farmer waiting for some distant, mythical harvest to save us. Salvation was always a few elusive months away. And now it was here. In my blood. Pulsing through my body. I was euphoric, and wanted to tell everyone I knew about my positive experience. But as I started to tell friends about the trial, I was shocked to find out how many of them thought I was out of my mind. Easily half the people I spoke to admitted that they had no plans to get the vaccine themselves.

Yes, they wear masks. Yes they vaccinate their kids. And yes, they very much believe in science. But somehow, this one seemed different to them. “Too many unknowns,” as a friend put it. And no matter how much I referenced the clinical data — the 95 percent success rate, even my own personal experience — there seemed no way to change their minds.

A vaccine is only as effective as its prevalence in society. Measles requires about 95 percent of a population to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity, where the remaining 5 percent will be protected. For polio, the threshold is about 80 percent. The hope for COVID was that a 70 percent threshold was enough to end the pandemic.

“The fact is, there are a significant number of people who distrust vaccines, even when clear, long-term safety and efficacy data exists,” Ben told me. “In the case of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) vaccines, these concerns will likely be further elevated because they were rapidly approved for use and, for obvious reasons, we don’t have any long-term data yet. That said, I can assure you that they were properly vetted, have been shown to be both safe and effective, and there is no reason to believe there will be any adverse effects that manifest long after the vaccine is administered.”

While many experts saw this fight coming, I did not. Turns out, we’ll need all the support we can get to reach herd immunity, or as my boys put it, find a way to save the world.

The Lonely Immunity of the COVID Vaccine