Priest-scientist urges public to get Covid-19 vaccines

MANILA. Filipino Dominican priest-scientist Nicanor Austriaco. (File photo)

A KNOWN US-based Filipino Dominican priest and microbiologist has joined the global call for people, like those in the Philippines, to avail themselves of the vaccination program against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) amid reports that many are unwilling to be inoculated after being influenced by unscientific claims and broader conspiracy theories.

"To be clear, as soon as a Covid-19 becomes available for which I am eligible, whether in the USA or here in the Philippines, I intend to be vaccinated with it," said Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, chief researcher at Austriaco Laboratory and professor of biology and theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, USA.

"Also, as soon as a vaccine becomes available for my mother here in the Philippines, I will encourage her to be vaccinated with it," he added.

Austriaco, who is also developing his own affordable and accessible yeast-based vaccine, said he decided to come forward after receiving numerous queries on his views about the vaccines.

As the Philippine government announced that it will roll out its vaccination program in the first quarter of 2021, public trust and confidence in vaccines have apparently waned, according to a report from Asia Catholic news site Licas.news.

Latest survey from Octa Research Group revealed that only 25 percent of the respondents would be willing to be vaccinated, while 28 percent would choose not to be vaccinated once the vaccines are available in the country.

Another survey from Pulse Asia showed that only 32 percent were willing to be inoculated, while 47 percent would not receive the vaccine and 21 percent were undecided.

Vaccine advocacy

While Austriaco admitted that he has "been very busy" with Covid-19 pandemic management in the Philippines, he said "it is time" for him to encourage the public to receive the vaccines, this also as vaccination campaigns build up around the globe.

"Why? First, because these vaccines will save lives and protect our health care system. They will end the pandemic and remove the always looming threat of lockdown and social disruption. They will allow us to hug again!" said Austriaco, who is currently on sabbatical as a visiting professor of biological sciences at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.

"Second, because I trust the scientific process that has gone into the development and testing of these vaccines... Moreover, these vaccines rely on decades of research," he added.

The Dominican microbiologist said these vaccines "were developed in record time."

"But that is what you would expect when scientists have unlimited funding to support their experiments and no other burdens to deal with like writing and revising grant proposal after grant proposal in small incremental steps. It is not like scientists just woke up one morning at the beginning of the pandemic and started from scratch. We have known about mRNA for over 50 years, and we know how it is made, used, and destroyed in the cell. We have known about RNA viruses for decades as well, including the subclass of RNA viruses that are called coronaviruses," said the Dominican priest, who obtained a doctorate in biology from the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a fellow of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

According to Austriaco, the "decades of experiments and countless sleepless nights by tens of thousands of scientists who spent hours and hours toiling at the bench form the bedrock of the vaccines that are now being deployed around the world."

"A lot of great science went into these vaccines and a lot of great scientists were needed to generate that great science," he added.

While there are those who questioned about the speed of the vaccine testing, Austriaco maintained that "these vaccines are safe and efficacious."

"And in the end, the numbers say it all. And what the numbers say is that. Tens of thousands were tested and they developed an appropriate immune response to the Sars-CoV-2 virus. Tens of thousands were tested and none got very ill or died from the vaccines," he added.

Debunking unscientific claims

As to whether these vaccines have side effects, Austriaco answered: "Absolutely! That is what the clinical trials have also shown. I expect to have a sore arm for a day or so. I expect to have a fever and to feel worn out for a time."

"But these are signs that the vaccine is working! These are signs that the vaccine is jumpstarting my immune response so that I can make those precious antibodies that will wipe out the Covid-19 virus if I am exposed to them for real in the future," he said.

"And the pain and discomfort and just plain inconvenience do not compare with what I would experience if I did get a severe case of Covid-19, or God forbid, with what someone else would experience if I infected them with Covid-19 and they ended up in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit). As a Christian, I am taught that a broken world can only be redeemed by sacrifice. This is the meaning of the Cross. In my view, the few days of discomfort and downright crappiness that I expect to experience after each dose of the Covid-19 vaccine will be my contribution to the sacrifice that heals the world (cf. Col 1:24)," he wrote.

While there were reports about rare allergic reactions to the virus, the priest-microbiologist maintained that there is a solution to it.

"In the first two weeks of the vaccination campaign in the USA, 21 cases of severe allergic responses were recorded among 1,893,360 vaccinations. Most of these allergic responses (71 percent) occurred within 15 minutes of injection. Am I concerned? Not really. First, I have not experienced severe allergic responses before. The 21 people who experienced a response to the Covid-19 jab had a history of bad allergic responses. So it is unlikely that I will experience this reaction myself," he said.

According to Austriaco, the solution to these allergic responses is called the EpiPen.

"I have had students who walk around campus with an EpiPen because they know that they are prone to allergic responses. Here in the Philippines, we plan to have EpiPens available everywhere we do vaccinations. So we will be ready. If I or someone else gets an allergic response, we will jab them with that EpiPen!" he added.

On the few reports of people who died days or weeks after receiving the vaccine, the priest-scientist maintained that "there is no evidence whatsoever that these individuals died because of the vaccine."

"We are vaccinating millions of people around the world right now, so we should expect some to die within a few weeks after receiving the vaccine. Why? Because people die. Especially elderly people. It was just their time, whether or not they had received the vaccine or not," he said.

He also debunked the claim that the Covid-19 vaccine will make women infertile, saying "this claim is unreasonable and not supported by the science."

"Moreover, if an antibody response against Covid-19 triggers a response against the human placenta, then we would expect that Covid-19 would trigger miscarriages as the body attacked the placenta while attacking the virus. No increase in miscarriages has been seen among the 45,000+ pregnant women who have been infected with Sars-CoV-2 since the beginning of the pandemic," he said.

"Finally, there are reports of women becoming pregnant during the vaccine clinical trials after they had developed an immune response against the Sars-CoV-2 virus. This demonstrates that they were not rendered infertile by the vaccine," he added.

On the fear that the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines will change one's genes, he maintained that "this claim is unreasonable and not supported by any science."

"For the most part, every human cell has hundreds of thousands of copies of its own mRNA at any one moment in time. We have never seen these mRNAs encoded back into DNA and reinserted back into the human being's DNA, even when the cell is infected with an RNA virus that has the enzyme or molecular machine called reverse transcriptase, which is necessary for making RNA into DNA. If this claim were true, then human cells infected with an RNA virus would contain new DNA from the person's mRNA. Again, this has never been seen," Austriaco said.

As a priest-scientist, he said he has to "respect the evidence, whether it is the data of science or the data of divine revelation, and there simply is no evidence that mRNA vaccines will reprogram our genes."

"Finally, I have to address the moral complications raised by the fetal cell lines derived from an abortion decades ago that were used to manufacture some of the Covid-19 vaccines. As a priest, I know that different people have different thresholds of sensitivity to evil. Some feel evil exquisitely. Others not so much. We should therefore expect different people to reach different moral conclusions that could even be opposed to each other while both remaining virtuous responses.

"Personally, I will choose to avoid the vaccines made with these cell lines. However, as the Vatican itself has noted, it is not immoral to avail oneself of these morally controversial vaccines, especially if no other options are available.

"In the end, I believe that the unprecedented, and really, unexpected, successes we have witnessed in the production of these vaccines are a blessing from the Lord," he wrote.

Cases of coronavirus, which affected 218 countries and territories around the globe after its first recorded infection in Wuhan, China in December 2019 have already reached 90,879,255, as of January 11, 2021.

The virus has killed 1,946,619 people worldwide, while 64,974,697 have recovered. (SunStar Philippines)


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