The selection of Dr. Jane M. Orient as federal health officials are trying to promote a vaccine to end the coronavirus pandemic prompted harsh criticism from Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York.
- Dec. 6, 2020
WASHINGTON — A doctor who is skeptical of coronavirus vaccines and promotes the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment will be the lead witness at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, prompting criticism from Democrats who say Republicans should not give a platform to someone who spreads conspiracy theories.
Dr. Jane M. Orient is the executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group that opposes government involvement in medicine and views federal vaccine mandates as a violation of human rights.
“A public health threat is the rationale for the policy on mandatory vaccines. But how much of a threat is required to justify forcing people to accept government-imposed risks?” Dr. Orient wrote in a statement to the Senate last year, calling vaccine mandates “a serious intrusion into individual liberty, autonomy and parental decisions.”
In a phone interview on Sunday, Dr. Orient, an internist who received her medical degree from Columbia University in New York, resisted being cast as an “anti-vaxxer” and said she would not get a coronavirus vaccine because she had an autoimmune condition. She added that she opposed the government’s push for all Americans to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, noting that both vaccine candidates — one made by the Pfizer and the other by Moderna — use a new scientific method.
“It seems to me reckless to be pushing people to take risks when you don’t know what the risks are,” Dr. Orient said, adding: “People’s rights should be respected. Where is ‘my body, my choice’ when it comes to this?”
Her selection as a witness as federal health officials are trying to promote a vaccine as a way to end a pandemic that has killed more than 281,000 Americans prompted harsh criticism from Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader.
“At such a crucial time, giving a platform to conspiracy theorists to spread myths and falsehoods about Covid vaccines is downright dangerous and one of the last things Senate Republicans should be doing right now,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement on Sunday.
But at least two Republican House members — Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona and Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina — appeared to embrace Dr. Orient’s warnings against government mandates. They took to Twitter to express those views.
“Americans should have the freedom to take the COVID vaccine,” Mr. Duncan wrote on Saturday. “Americans should also have the freedom to decline the vaccine.”
A spokesman for the chairman of the Senate committee, Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, did not immediately return an email message asking why Dr. Orient had been invited to testify.
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Answers to Your Vaccine Questions
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
Federal health officials are trying to enlist lawmakers in a campaign to encourage Americans to accept the new vaccines. An F.D.A. advisory committee will meet on Thursday to review data on the safety and efficacy of Pfizer’s vaccine candidate. If the agency grants the vaccine emergency authorization, rollout could begin shortly after.
In a private briefing with a bipartisan group of senators last month, Moncef Slaoui, the chief scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s vaccine development program, said that “it would help if senators got vaccinated,” according to a person familiar with the call.
Dr. Orient, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., said on Sunday that she would appear remotely during the hearing on early at-home treatment for Covid-19. She said in the interview that doctors were too often sending patients home with instructions to simply rest and ride out the disease.
The association has also sued the government in an effort to force it to release hydroxychloroquine from the national stockpile for use as a Covid-19 treatment, although the scientific evidence indicates that the drug is ineffective against the coronavirus. The case is currently before a federal appeals court.
Dr. Orient said she intended to use her testimony to call for government guidelines informing doctors about hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for Covid-19 patients, even though the Food and Drug Administration revoked an emergency authorization allowing the drug to be distributed from the national stockpile and has warned that it could harm those patients.
Dr. Orient’s organization has urged people to be cautious about the vaccine in blog posts with titles like “Should We Line Up for a 90% Effective Vaccine?” In her interview, she raised particular concerns about vaccinations for young people “because the effect on fertility has not been determined.” There is no evidence that any of the leading coronavirus vaccines affect fertility.
Dr. Orient also took aim at Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, asking, “Why is he dictating care for 340 million Americans?”