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IWU Alum Leading Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research On COVID Misconceptions

Mayo Clinic
Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group and an Illinois Wesleyan University graduate, said unwillingness to get immunized often boils down to a lack of understanding of the science.";

A Mayo Clinic vaccine researcher and Illinois Wesleyan University graduate says he's not surprised some people don't want to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

A December survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found about one in four Americans (27%) probably or definitely didn’t plan on getting the shots, even if they were available for free and are deemed safe by scientists.

The survey found vaccine hesitancy was highest among Republicans (42%), people ages 30-49 (36%), and rural residents (35%). Black Americans also demonstrated more hesitancy than the general population (35%).

Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, said unwillingness to get immunized often boils down to a lack of understanding of the science.

“Most people want to make a good decision, they're just not sure how to do that,” Poland said. “The vast majority of people are mathematically illiterate and make decisions based on emotion.”

For example, he said, marketers have learned consumers will buy something for $1.99 but won’t for $2, even though the difference is meaningless.

Poland said there’s nothing people use in their everyday lives that aren’t the product of science and technology. Yet, people are skeptical about advances in medicine vaccines.

“Many people will drive a car today or this week, even though there's a 15-20% lifetime risk of permanent disability from doing that,” Poland said. “Imagine if I told you that about a medication. You'd say, ‘No way would I use it.’ But you think nothing of it in driving your car, because you see that the benefits outweigh those risks.”

Poland said this may be the first time the general public is hearing about mRNA vaccines. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been around. He said development started more than three decades ago. There’s long been an mRNA vaccine against ebola, for example.

“It's a word that sounds scary if you're not familiar with it, but all mRNA is is a blueprint for one protein from the virus,” Poland said. “So it's sort of like saying, ‘The car was sitting there all along and all we did was put the engine in it.’”

Poland said that blueprint gets delivered into our cells and causes them to make copies of the spike protein from the virus. Those proteins stimulate an immune response that protects us, he said.

“The amazing thing about these vaccines is that we expected efficacy in the 50-60% (range). This has been 95-100% across all races, across all ages, across all other concomitant medical problems,” Poland said. “We do not have other vaccines this powerfully effective.”

The accelerated timeline of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines also is a hang-up for some people. But Poland said we know a lot about the vaccines--thousands and thousands of pages worth of information.

“While it seems rushed, it seems so fast because we're in the middle of a pandemic,” Poland said. “You could accumulate cases so fast because of people's inability to follow basic public health recommendations, or unwillingness to follow them. You have this wildfire of a pandemic going on, which when you're doing a clinical trial means you can test your vaccines very, very quickly--which they did.”

Poland said there are just a few things scientists don’t know at this point: the efficacy and safety in children, in pregnant women, in people who are highly immunocompromised, and in the eldest of the elderly.

For all others, he said, reluctance to get the vaccine is an act of selfishness.

"To the extent that people reject the vaccine, we will continue as a society to shoot ourselves in the foot," he said. "We will prolong, needlessly, the pandemic. Thousands of people will die as a result of that."

Dr. Greg Poland leads the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. He graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1977 before going onto the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, the University of Minnesota and, eventually, Mayo Clinic.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.