On May 18th, the University of Chicago proclaimed that all students must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 prior to returning to campus in the fall of 2021. Provost Ka Yee C. Lee and Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen conveyed this news to students via email, and College Dean of Students Jay Ellison proceeded to relay it to parents.
The initial email states that “starting with the 2021 Autumn Quarter the University of Chicago will require all students to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19.” This mandate encompasses “all students participating in in-person classes, research, or other activities in the U.S.” The university introduces an element of urgency by noting that, “[a]t this time, the University of Chicago will require all students to get vaccinated at the first opportunity.”
There will be some exceptions to the vaccine requirement, specifically “for religious or medical reasons as required by law.” The extent of these exceptions is presently unclear, but the university indicated that more information will follow shortly. Some faiths traditionally abstain from vaccines. Others in the religious community and beyond have raised concerns about some COVID-19 vaccines developed via research on aborted fetal cell tissue.
In explaining the university’s vaccine requirement, Lee and Rasmussen write that “[u]niversal COVID-19 vaccination for UChicago students will contribute to greater immunity, reduce the risk of sudden clusters of COVID-19 on campus, and help protect members of our community who are at the highest risk of developing serious disease from the virus.”
The university further stipulates that “[a]ll vaccines approved by the FDA or WHO will be considered suitable to fulfill the University’s requirement.” As of the time of writing, the FDA has extended emergency-use authorizations to vaccines developed by Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer/BioNTech, and Moderna. The World Health Organization authorized additional vaccines, including those developed by AstraZeneca and Chinese state-owned company Sinopharm, which will presumably fulfill the university’s requirement.
According to data compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer/BioNTech, and Moderna vaccines are 72%, 91%, and 94% effective at preventing the onset of COVID-19, respectively. As of April 15th, only 5,800 fully-vaccinated Americans had contracted COVID-19, and just 74 had died from the disease post-vaccination (out of 77 million vaccinated). Furthermore, Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that “[t]he number of serious problems in test participants was very low, and there was little difference between those who received the actual vaccine and those who received a placebo.”
Despite the university’s insistence on FDA- and WHO-approved vaccines, the FDA’s emergency-use authorizations do not technically constitute approval. The British Medical Association’s journal, The BMJ, notes that “the products being rolled out still technically remain ‘investigational,’” and that “all covid-19 vaccines currently in use in the US are available under emergency access only.” When the writer of this piece received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine through UChicago Medicine, he received a UChicago-generated handout stating that the Pfizer vaccine “has not had the same kind of review as an FDA-approved or cleared product.” And a separate handout developed by Pfizer notes, “There is no [FDA] approved vaccine to prevent COVID-19.”
Some are skeptical of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination because of the deployment of emergency-use authorizations. Notably, Efthimios Parasidis and Aaron S. Kesselhein write in Health Affairs: “Ethical and public policy rationales […] support the notion that government or private mandates should not be permitted for EUA vaccines.”
The emergency-use authorizations were issued in lieu of approvals because of the time constraints presented by the pandemic, which was in full swing at the time of the Pfizer and Moderna authorizations. Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, insists that the expedited review process has no bearing on the vaccines’ safety and efficacy. He said in March that “these are probably the best-studied vaccines you could imagine in terms of the scale of the trials that were done, the collecting of the data, the public disclosure of every bit of details of the data from the trials, and then ultimately, the debating in a public session about whether or not these were safe and effective.”
The university plans to enforce its mandate by requiring “proof of vaccination through medical records (or vaccine certification card),” which is sure to elicit familiar debates about vaccine passports. Information about how to “confirm vaccination status” is forthcoming. On May 20th, Dean of Students Rasmussen sent students an email asking them to declare their vaccination status, with the goal of developing a voluntary but representative sample for planning purposes.
Other members of the university community (namely, administrators, staff, and guests) are not yet required to receive a vaccine, but the university is “exploring whether COVID-19 vaccines will [also] be required for these groups.”