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Addressing concerns about getting the COVID-19 vaccine

Even as the rest of the world is clamoring for the vaccine, there are still a large number of Americans who don't want it or are hesitant to get it. We asked some of our viewers to tell us about their concerns and why they've chosen to wait, and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now let's turn to questions around getting the vaccine in this country.

    Even as the rest of the world is clamoring for the vaccine, there are still a large number of Americans who don't want it or are hesitant to get it.

    Yesterday, President Biden announced a number of additional private and public partnerships to try to ensure 70 percent of U.S. adults have had at least one shot by the Fourth of July.

    Vaccination rates in the U.S. did hit a high in April, but have been falling ever since.

    We asked some of you to tell us about your concerns and why you have chosen to wait.

    We're going to try answering some of those with Dr. Francis Collins. He is the director of the National Institutes of Health.

    Dr. Collins, thank you so much for being with us again.

    It is contradictory to hear — to think that the rest of the world wants the vaccine, some Americans still hesitant to get it.

    But I want to — what I want to ask you about that is, what can make the most difference now in achieving President Biden's goal of 70 percent of Americans by the Fourth of July?

  • Francis Collins:

    Well, as the president announced in this National Month of Action, I think that's partly about trying to be sure people have answers to their questions, lots of information going to be shared, including right now in this program, but in lots of other places, and by community folks who are perhaps trusted as specific agents of information, but also trying to knock down any remaining barriers that have gotten in the way of people being able to get access.

    Such things as providing childcare, so you can get your vaccine, providing rides on things that otherwise might be hard to come by, because there are so many advantages to being vaccinated, as I can vouch, having gotten to that point, with my wife.

    I think we also want to be sure people grab onto that. This is a liberating feeling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Dr. Collins, let me just — we do have some of these concerns. We want to share them with you and then have you respond to them.

    Debbe Hacke asked about how the vaccines are made. Here's what she said.

  • Debbe Hacke:

    How did they come up with the formula for the vaccine? Who was involved in creating the formula for the vaccine?

    How long had they done research on it before they decided to try it out on human beings to see if it is actually effective or not? And are they accumulating data from the — what they have done to see how the vaccine is working?

  • Francis Collins:

    Basically, the mRNA vaccines, which is Pfizer, and Moderna, which are the main source of vaccinations right now in the United States, that was developed over the course of more than 25 years, a very careful investigation to see how this might work in very small-scale efforts and then, ultimately, just being ready at the time that COVID appeared to try this in very large phase three trials.

    And as far as following up, all of the people who were in those trials, at least 30,000, are being tracked continually to see, are they still resisting infection and are there any long-term side effects?

    And, so far, the news is really good. And all that information is accessible to people, because we're trying to be as transparent as possible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Dr. Collins, Elizabeth Bushell had a question about the effects of vaccines on people who have preexisting conditions.

    Here's her question.

  • Elizabeth Bushell:

    Is there a source that I can go to, to find out whether preexisting conditions can be triggered by the vaccine, be it regardless of which particular vaccine you choose?

    I would be interested in knowing that, because, thus far, I have been unable to find a good source for that type of information.

  • Francis Collins:

    You can go to CDC's Web site, and they have a page about vaccines and preexisting conditions.

    And it's worth knowing that the trials, these large-scale trials of at least 30,000, specifically tried to enroll people with preexisting conditions. We wanted to see, does this work with people with heart disease and diabetes and hypertension?

    The one area people tend to ask about is, what about autoimmune diseases, since the vaccine works by triggering your immune system to do what it needs to, to fight off an infection? Is there any risk there you're going to activate something else? No data to suggest that that is an issue, but we haven't done rigorous study quite yet.

    Only other thing I would say, as far as preexisting condition to pay attention to, if you're somebody who's had genuine severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, then that's something to tell the people as you're getting vaccinated has happened before, because you are at somewhat higher risk from the vaccine.

    Entirely treatable. Doesn't happen except once in a blue moon, but it's a good thing to tell people about.

  • Judy WoodruffF:

    And here is Chris Shaeffer, who had a question we heard from many people.

  • Chris Shaeffer:

    What do we know by now about how effective they are against the variants?

  • Francis Collins:

    We have now very good data, which is pretty reassuring, that the current vaccines do work to protect against these, not quite as strongly as with the original virus, but strongly enough right now.

    So, at the moment, there is no reason that anybody should feel like, oh, I need a different vaccine than this.

    The ones we have got are good. Downstream, if other variants appear, or if some of the immunity wears off over months or even years, then boosters might be needed. But, right now, it's looking pretty good.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And our final question, Dr. Collins, from a viewer is from Tom Reichert, who is speaking for people who are just opposed.

  • Tom Reichert:

    I don't see myself getting it, unless I'm absolutely forced to, which I don't feel is right, for at least probably three to four years from now. Then I would feel more comfortable.

  • Francis Collins:

    I guess, in a place, if I had a conversation with Tom, of pointing out that vaccines, if they're going to have unexpected adverse events, it almost always happens in the first couple of months after the injection.

    And we now have a lot of experience with these vaccines to say that we're not seeing that. So, the wait-and-see was, I think, a totally reasonable position to take. But maybe we have waited long enough to see that the risks of long-term events seem to be extremely low.

    And, meanwhile, Tom is still facing the chance of getting infected with a disease that we know has killed almost 600,000 people. So, putting that as a benefit to avoid that seems like still a pretty good calculation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I am sure these people appreciate — appreciate your comments on all these questions.

    Dr. Collins, I just have a couple more things I want to ask you about, things that are in the news right now. And it has to do with that lab in China in Wuhan.

    As you know, the e-mails that have been publicly released recently from Dr. Anthony Fauci indicate conversation between the two of you.

    My question is, do you think — I mean, is it the case that, looking back on that time early in the pandemic — this was early in 2020 — that the possibility that this virus came from that lab was just not taken seriously enough?

  • Francis Collins:

    You know, I think it was a confusing time back then, Judy.

    First, let me say I do think we need to get answers here. An investigation is very much needed.

    What was happening, though, back in February and March of 2020 were, a number of different theories were being floated. One that was particularly prominent was the idea that this vaccine — I mean — sorry — this virus was actually engineered intentionally, that it was a product of bioweapon manufacture.

    That, when you looked at the actual letters of the code of this virus, was not tenable. And there's a paper published about that in "Nature Medicine" by Kristian Andersen and others that I got very engaged in reviewing.

    So, unfortunately, that particular conspiracy didn't seem supportable. And so the idea that it was, on the other hand, a lab accident, where they were studying this virus, which maybe did occur in nature, but it got loose in the lab, that theory didn't get nearly as much attention perhaps as it should have.

    I will tell you, it was always on my mind. I know it was on Tony Fauci's mind. But none of us ran to the microphone to say, we need to worry about the fact this could have been a lab leak.

    It — at the present time, we have no more data or less data to support that. Suddenly, it's emerged in a lot of people's minds as, oh, that's the leading explanation.

    I don't know how to say that. I still think a natural origin is the most likely explanation of how SARS-CoV-2 came to be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that — and we know that is being investigated.

    The other question, Dr. Collins, that has come to light has to do with funding from the NIH of this, that money — U.S. government money that went toward that lab, and the concern whether some of that research may have been toward making the virus more dangerous than it was.

    I mean, how do you satisfy yourself that that didn't happen, or can you?

  • Francis CollinsS:

    Well, I think I can.

    And, again, I'm glad you asked the question, because there is a bit of confusion about this. As the NIH, the largest supporter of medical research in the world, I think it would have been irresponsible for us not to see what we could learn about coronaviruses in China, given the origin of SARS 20 years ago and MERS another decade after that, both of which came from bats in caves in China, and clearly were a sign that there might be more trouble ahead.

    And so we did, through a subcontract to the Wuhan Institute of Biology, support the collection of those bat viruses to understand what was there and to try to understand their properties.

    We never authorized any support of a virus that would infect a human to make it more lethal or more transmissible. That would have been absolutely off-limits.

    The amount of money that went to that particular institute was quite modest. I can't tell you whether they, with their millions, tens of millions, or maybe hundreds of millions of dollars of other research, were doing other things that they didn't tell us about. But I will tell you that what NIH supported, what we approved is not something that would have contributed to the arrival of this very dangerous pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, thank you very much.

  • Francis Collins:

    Thanks. Nice to see you, Judy.

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