Vaccines are one of the greatest public health accomplishments of all time. For centuries, public health has relied on vaccinations to prevent and control disease outbreaks for a plethora of infectious scourges, with our crowning achievement being the successful eradication of smallpox.
The purpose of vaccine documentation is to provide proof of an individual's protection from either becoming infected or transmitting a vaccine-preventable disease. Vouching for these protections requires a firm knowledge about the epidemiology of the disease, as well as scientific knowledge concerning the efficacy of the vaccine. The vaccines we currently require be documented have met these tests; the vaccine for COVID-19 has not yet been proven to do so.
Let's acknowledge that the term "vaccine passport" is a poor choice of words. Passports are a legal travel document created by nations and governed by law for identification of the bearer to control entry and exit from nation states. They often serve as legal forms of identification and as a record of international travel. They are generally very sophisticated documents that have been created in a secure manner and may include a range of electronic and, in some cases, biometric measures such as fingerprints to ensure the holder is indeed who they say they are. Vaccine passports are medical documents used to document the vaccination status of an individual. They do not undergo the same level of administrative scrutiny and cannot be used to verify that the presenter is indeed the vaccinated individual. Some companies do have electronic methods to address concerns about verification; however, most people currently have paper records that can be easily falsified.
"Vaccine passports" as currently proposed risk giving people a false sense of security.
Successful disease control from vaccination programs relies on the ability to vaccinate at a level that prevents large-scale disease spread and the ability to rapidly identify the presence of disease outbreaks. It requires reliable, safe, and effective vaccines that are easily delivered in clinical and nonclinical settings. Keeping vaccination information as a part of the medical record, and even having a separate specialized vaccine record for personal use, is a time-honored tradition.
Keeping a vaccination record provides a method to keep track of the many shots one receives and serves as a visual reminder to help ensure the appropriate vaccine shot schedule is maintained for vaccines requiring multiple doses. The vaccine record, when combined with vaccine safety monitoring systems, serves as a mechanism to track adverse events to monitor and ensure the safety of vaccines as a consumer product. The record also serves as the official record of vaccination when required for administrative or legally prescribed purposes.
"Vaccine passports" as currently proposed risk giving people a false sense of security. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for use, many of the essential questions remain unanswered. While we do know the current three vaccines are highly protective against severe disease and death, and there is some evidence that these vaccinations do reduce infections and virus transmission of SARS-CoV-2, we do not yet know the full degree to which this occurs.
For example, we know there have been some cases of people that have been infected in close proximity to getting their full vaccination and rare cases of breakthrough reinfections. A breakthrough infection in a restaurant is a challenge for contact tracing, but an outbreak from a movie theater exposure or a baseball game could spark a major outbreak at our current level of vaccination. Current CDC guidance recommends continued mask wearing in order to address these concerns.
We also do not yet know how long the protections will last and if or when a booster or revaccination is required. In effect, it is too soon to know. Should an annual booster shot be required, then a vaccine passport would require annual updating, a process more frequent than renewal of a driver's license.
We also know that the current SARS-CoV-2 virus is mutating briskly. While the current approved vaccines have remained effective overall, there is evidence of some degree of degradation in vaccine effectiveness against some of the circulating strains. We also have sparse data on many of the other emerging strains of concern because we have not had the surveillance capacity in the U.S. to gain an adequate sense of how the virus is changing to fully align vaccine effectiveness with viral capabilities.
The risk of people misusing these "passports" is troubling. The potential for using these documents for hiring, firing or job limitation is a serious concern. Unvaccinated workers are at risk of this form of discrimination even from well-meaning employers or supervisors. Health insurers are prohibited by the Affordable Care Act from discriminating based on preexisting conditions, but they could probably charge a higher premium for unvaccinated individuals. There also is a risk of stigmatizing individuals who are not vaccinated or have left their vaccine documentation at home. Another concern: the opportunity to discriminate based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, using one's vaccination status as an excuse.
These "passports" are being discussed as a "ticket verification" for entry to many activities, including dining at restaurants, flying domestically and/or internationally, going to movie theaters and sporting events, etc. These are all activities we already are doing at reduced levels and for which wearing a mask, hand hygiene and physical distancing are effective disease control practices. COVID-19 vaccines are indeed the measure that will make the ability to totally reopen our society complete, but we are not there yet. Documentation of one's COVID-19 vaccine status may be useful in selected situations in the future. That remains to be seen.
Finally, inadequate vaccine supply and disparities in vaccine delivery have created enormous challenges in providing equal access to vaccination. Also, the amount of misinformation, disinformation, and lingering vaccine hesitancy continue to limit the speed at which we will reach the level of vaccination of the population that would make this documentation meaningful. The requirement for "vaccine passports" is already alienating people who are opposed to vaccinations for a variety of reasons, paradoxically risking reduced vaccine uptake. This politicization of the vaccination effort is of concern. There are indeed people who, due to medical contraindications or legal exemptions, will not be vaccinated, and we do not yet have a national framework on how to address this.
Vaccine passports are not the solution for reopening our society — a robust vaccination program is. The requirement to document one's vaccination status for COVID-19 may one day have its place. For now, it is an idea whose time has not yet come.
Editor's Note: This op/ed is part of a "Big Question" series on the ethics of vaccine passports. Read the flip side argument here.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.