Last week a Wisconsin pharmacist was charged with intentionally destroying 57 vials of a COVID-19 vaccine by removing them from refrigeration and letting them sit at room temperature in excess of the 12 hour window recommended by the manufacturer. The vials, which contained a total of 570 doses, were of the Moderna vaccine. That vaccine is one of the mRNA vaccines, which works by replicating the “protein spikes” that give the coronavirus its name without using any amount of an actual living or dead virus as traditional vaccines do. Once the body develops antibodies to attack those spikes from the vaccination they can then attack the spikes on the actual COVID-19 virus if the subject is exposed, killing the virus.
The pharmacist, who described himself as a “conspiracy theorist,” stated he had concerns the mRNA vaccines could alter the DNA of those who received the vaccine – something that doctors and medical experts said is not possible.
We understand why folks might have some trepidation about taking a new vaccine, especially one that was approved so quickly and employs such a novel approach to combating the virus. While the science behind it suggests the vaccine is both effective and harmless – an assertion which we accept – there have been other drugs that were deemed safe and later found to have unforeseen side effects.
Ranitidine, an over the counter acid reflux, heartburn and sour stomach medication sold under the brand name Zantac, was deemed safe for years until the FDA issued a recall in late 2019 over concerns that one of the ingredients in the drug could cause cancer.
More chilling than ranitidine was the drug thalidomide. While thalidomide is still used today for a number of indications including cancer, graft-versus-host disease, and skin conditions such as leprosy, it is used only with extraordinarily strong warnings. Both women and men taking the drug are required to use birth control and are encouraged to take other prophylactic measures to ensure pregnancy does not result while on the drug, as it effects male sperm cells as well as female ovum and can result in severe birth defects in children conceived while their parents are using the drug. It can also result in birth defects in the developing fetus if a woman takes the drug after she has become pregnant.
This second part was the issue with a number of children born in the late 1950s and early 1960s when thalidomide, then available over the counter without a prescription, was marketed for anxiety, sleeplessness, tension, and morning sickness. Many expectant mothers, needing to go about their daily business and suffering from the nausea that some women experience in early pregnancy, took the drug for their morning sickness with no idea what it was doing to their developing children. When these children were born with abnormally stunted, flipper like, or missing arms and legs the cause was eventually traced to the drug that was marketed specifically to pregnant women.
Things like thalidomide – surely one of the worst case scenarios for adverse drug side-effects – have taught us to err on the side of caution and be skeptical of claims of safety from new drugs. That’s certainly an understandable stance to take, at least until the safety and efficacy of a drug is proven beyond shadow of doubt by widespread and long-term use.
But vaccines are not the same as drugs like thalidomide and ranitidine – which are often taken daily and for issues unrelated to a viral disease. Vaccines like the polio vaccine have saved millions of people from the debilitating effects of that viral disease, and vaccines against measles, mumps, and rubella – all viral diseases – have spared the lives of thousands of children and kept them from experiencing the horrible effects of these once common childhood diseases.
While we believe the science is sound and the new mRNA based coronavirus vaccines, like the one from Moderna, appear to be both safe and effective, we understand if some folks choose to forego the vaccine until more information is in. But even if you choose not to take the vaccine, there is no reason to stop others from making their own informed choice and taking the shot. Doing so, in the manner the Wisconsin pharmacist did, takes away the individual’s right to do as they see best for themselves and their family.
We cannot condone his decision, no matter his personal convictions, and we hope he will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This virus has already disrupted too many lives and led to the deaths of too many loved ones. Taking away someone’s ability to protect themselves from it, without their consent, is the very definition of criminal.