A roadmap through the past, present, and future of the pandemic with Dr. Christopher Labos & Dr. Sanjeet Saluja. Hearing from the Experts: Fuel Sponsors a Company Discussion about Vaccine Science
The decision to get or refuse vaccination against COVID-19 is one of the most difficult subjects of our times. Opinions on both sides get heated very quickly, and each side often forgets the other side has earnestly held reasons for believing what they do. People who encourage vaccines believe they are the best possible means out of the COVID pandemic; people who are uncertain about vaccines have serious worries about potential health risks the vaccine might pose, and they can’t just push those concerns aside.
Everyone has heard arguments, but Fuel decided what its employees needed was basic medical facts from two experts on the COVID-19 pandemic: McGill cardiologist and epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Labos, and associate chief of the Emergency Department at the MUHC Glen Hospital complex, Dr. Sanjeet Saluja. During a symposium for Fuel staff in late November, each expert gave a brief talk about COVID and the course of the pandemic, and then answered any and all questions Fuel staff had—both those submitted in advance, and those asked in person.
Dr. Saluja stood out immediately, for a striking reason. He is an observant Sikh, which means he believes simultaneously he has a duty to serve humanity, and also a duty to abide by the demands of his faith never to cut his hair. For the first time in his life, Dr. Saluja was forced to choose one belief over the other at the outbreak of the pandemic. He made the massive and unprecedented decision to breach the tenets of his faith and shave his beard in order to more securely wear masks that would keep his patients safe in the event that he became infected and was unaware he was contagious. His decision to place mask safety over his religious duties placed Dr. Saluja in global crosshairs, and he received death threats from around the world. But he continued shaving his beard and saving lives at the Glen, an obviously conflicting decision he was visibly emotional discussing onstage.
Funnier than most attendees expected a physician to be, Dr. Saluja got big laughs with his remarks on cats and cucumbers. But he also talked about COVID as an invisible illness that any person can share without knowing it.
“We don’t have any patients ‘without COVID,’” he explained, stressing that COVID-positive patients appear in every part of the ER. “It’s the person sitting next to you. It’s the person you see in the store. Nobody has any idea who has it and who doesn’t.”
By contrast, Dr. Labos was more serious, but he acted as a deep well of information—and counseled listeners to seek the right kind of data.
“Get your information from reputable sources, not [social media],” Dr. Labos said, warning about the proliferation of videos by “sketchy people” about the pandemic.
“It’s fine to have questions and concerns and be worried about vaccinating kids—I completely understand!” he said. “What bothers me is when people searching for the answers for their questions don’t go to Health Canada, the Centres for Disease Control, or their physician. Instead, they go to these really sketchy sources.”
What about the health care workers
Over the course of the talk, the Dr’s covered a variety of facts related to vaccines. These included underlining that:
- the development of COVID vaccines happened quickly not because researchers cut corners and were poorly tested, but because they built on decades of existing research into vaccines for other coronaviruses;
- the vaccine does not contain the coronavirus, and only lasts in the body for a short amount of time, while it teaches the body how to identify and create antibodies against COVID;
- the vaccine has no effect on fertility in women or men;
- mRNA vaccines don’t enter or affect DNA;
- there have been zero major complications to date among young children who’ve been vaccinated, and
- in Quebec, only 0.010% of vaccinated patients have experienced a serious side effect to the vaccine.
In response to questions from employees, the doctors explained the vaccine isn’t driving variants and creating more virulent forms of the virus—that’s actually caused by lack of vaccination.
Viruses and vaccines aren’t like bacteria and antibiotics, Dr. Labos explained. “Vaccines aren’t a medication: they create antibodies in your body that fight against the virus over the long term. You get vaccinated and the vaccine is gone from your system almost immediately.”
Rather, variants come from virus mutations that emerge in areas where there are many unvaccinated people and the disease has been able to run so wild that it has begun making little mistakes in copying itself from one infected person to the next. Unlike antibiotics, which can be overused, Labos stressed the more vaccines people get, the less the virus can spread at all.
What about healthcare workers?
Some employees were sensibly worried about how many health care professionals seemed to be opposed to the virus, and the doctors understood the urgency of this question. Dr. Labos pointed out, however, that more than 99% of MDs in Quebec are vaccinated, along with the overwhelming majority of nurses.
“It’s a tiny sliver of the health care workforce” that’s resisted being vaccinated, he added.
Of those health workers that haven’t been vaccinated, Dr. Saluja talked about the different kinds of knowledge people have in health care. He pointed out that he knew little about epidemiology, Dr. Labos’s expertise, while Dr. Labos knew little about how to run a major emergency department. In the cases of nurses and other health care workers, they may be well trained and effective in their areas of expertise, but like everybody else, they can take in bad information on subjects in which they’re not experts—especially if that information is coming from untrustworthy sources.
“It all comes down to where these health care workers are getting their information,” said Dr. Saluja. “A lot of health care workers [who are resisting the vaccine], their information isn’t coming from science. It’s coming from [Instagram], or a podcast they’ve heard. It depends on what your source is.”
Dr. Labos put it more bluntly: “Maybe don’t get medical advice from an NFL player? Think about where you’re hearing the things you’re hearing, and on the internet, live every day like it’s April Fool’s Day. That’s the only day people critically analyze what they read!”
Though some vaccinated people have experienced breakthrough infections, both doctors stressed this was not a sign that vaccination was failing to prevent transmission. Vaccines don’t offer protection like a perimeter wall: rather, they give one’s body a running start to prepare for battle. An unvaccinated person catching COVID, said Dr. Labos, will need about two weeks before they can begin producing antibodies that can fight the infection. After vaccination, any person is ready to face COVID.
That doesn’t mean they won’t face it, it just means they’re ready. COVID may still get into their nasal cavities and lungs, but in the majority of cases, the antibodies will destroy it before it can become an infection. Infection depends on the combination of how many antibodies a person has generated and how much coronavirus they’re exposed to, for example, during a long-closed car ride with an infected person.
“The term ‘breakthrough infection’ is misleading,” said Dr. Labos, “because the antibodies are already in there, ready to go in your blood. Even if you do get sick, you fight it off and have a mild infection.”
This is only one of a few coronavirus pandemics the doctors recalled in the last twenty years, noting 2003’s SARS pandemic, and the MERS coronavirus that has occurred in the Arabian peninsula since 2012. In that sense, they said, coronavirus pandemics are a part of modern life, and they all end—it’s just a question of how many people need to die or be vaccinated to bring them to a close.
Unlike SARS or MERS, however, a vaccine exists against COVID-19, and both doctors said with conviction that all reliable data has proven the vaccines safe.
But they urged Fuel employees not to take their word for it. They left the room with the final message: if you still have worries about vaccines, those concerns matter and should be addressed by a medical expert. Ask your family doctor or another physician you trust. The medical world is in agreement, they stressed: the vaccines work, and they are safe.