The government is not asking you to be a vaccine guinea pig

The government is not asking you to be a vaccine guinea pig
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COVID-19 skepticism and vaccine mistrust are ubiquitous. The number of people receiving vaccines each day has dropped to well under 2 million doses from a peak of over 3 million doses in mid-April. As such, the nation is approaching a vaccination wall that will prevent it from reaching the zone of herd immunity, believed to be between 70 to 90 percent of the population protected. The recent announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that fully vaccinated people can return to pre-pandemic activities without face coverings and social distancing may provide new incentives to get vaccinated. 

Regrettably, there remains a persistent skepticism amongst many in receiving a vaccine. Some of this hesitancy is attributed to disbelief in the severity of the coronavirus, concerns about vaccine safety given that the Federal and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it under an emergency use authorization, or general discomfort with government top-down pressure to take a vaccine. To each person, these reasons present real obstacles that no amount of rationale or data can overcome. 

No one willingly wants to be a guinea pig in what some might claim to be a “government experiment.” Making such a choice seems risky. Yet human choices are often a result of how people perceive risks and rewards — the flip sides of the same coin.   

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On the reward side, when the Powerball lottery reaches $100 million, ticket sales skyrocket, even though the odds of winning remain exceedingly small. Nonetheless, people will pay their hard-earned money for the opportunity to win. What gives them hope is that someone will win and, eventually, someone does win, seemingly justifying their expenditure. Unfortunately for them, it is highly unlikely to be them. 

On the risk side, the same type of principle holds true with coronavirus vaccines. A person receives a vaccine, and a few days later they might die. This reportedly has happened on relatively few occasions. The question is whether the vaccine caused the deaths or whether the deaths occurred independent of the vaccine. There is no way to know for sure. That is why data scientists look at such death data and assess whether they can draw a connection, referred to as a causal relationship

To put this into perspective, more than 7,800 people died every day on average in the U.S. in 2019. That equates to one death per day for every 42,000 people. If a random sample of 2 million people are vaccinated in a given day, it is reasonable to expect that almost 48 people will die within 24 hours of receiving their vaccine, independent of receiving the vaccine.   

When one person dies after receiving a vaccine dose, personal fears exaggerate the risk, driving the belief that the vaccine caused the death. Given that so few people are dying shortly after receiving a vaccine suggests that any deaths that occur are due to natural phenomena rather than caused by the vaccine. If the vaccine was actually causing deaths, many more people would be dying than what is being observed. 

Of course, one must look at the causes of death and further parse this information to ensure that the patterns of death are in line with the population, and that these deaths are not skewed to a particular cause for a given cohort of ages and genders. 

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No one wants to be a government guinea pig in a coronavirus vaccine experiment. Yet every one of us willingly volunteers to be a guinea pig in society every day, by accepting risks based on the rewards collected. We assume and accept risks when we drive our car on a busy interstate highway, eat food prepared in a mass-production processing plant, drink water provided by a water treatment facility, and breathe air needed to sustain life. Great precautions are taken to keep the population as safe as possible, within the constraints of time and resources. There is no such thing as 100 percent pure food, but there are standards of food safety that enable us to eat. There is no such thing as a 100 percent secure aviation system, but there are airport security standards that enable us to travel by air. 

Then there are enormous and well-established risks that many willingly take every day. Lighting up a cigarette has clear causal effects with poor health, yet over 45 million people smoke in the U.S. The same is true with consuming high levels of saturated fats.   

Life in a complex society requires each of us to take risks that are reasonable given the rewards or benefits that we accrue from such actions. We are all guinea pigs to some degree; it is the price to live in a free and open society. Taking a vaccine already given to over one-half of the nation’s population is a small price to pay for this freedom.  

Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a data scientist focusing on data–driven decision-making under uncertainty.