Joe Rogan's Bad Vaccine Advice Has an Upside

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When the popular podcaster Joe Rogan questioned whether young, healthy people should get Covid-19 vaccines in front of millions of listeners, he did the public health community a favor. His comments made it clear that they’ve done a terrible job so far in explaining why this low-risk group should get the shots. And some people just aren’t going to inject something into their bodies unless they’ve clearly been given a good reason.

We’ve been told, correctly, that almost all the deaths from Covid-19 are in people over 60, and that many (though not all) of the younger people who’ve been hospitalized were obese or had other health conditions. We’ve also been told that the vaccines are 100% effective against hospitalization and death, so it’s not clear that an unvaccinated twentysomething is going to kill their vaccinated grandma or grandpa.

I don’t like quoting people out of context, so I listened to much of the episode where it all started — Rogan's sprawling, 192-minute chat with comedian and libertarian David Smith. The vaccine talk starts around minute 115, after they discuss Covid-19 rules that don’t make sense and the authoritarian way so many Americans insist we all follow them anyway.

The vaccine segment starts with Rogan claiming that you can’t question the vaccines, which isn’t quite true, since he was doing it right there, and I’ve done it in columns and in my podcast. I’ve questioned all kinds of experts on vaccine safety and efficacy for different groups of people.

After asking a lot of experts a lot of questions, I’ve come away believing that while the risk of severe disease is much lower for young healthy people, it’s still a lot higher than any risks from the vaccine. Exercising and staying fit help, and may have kept Joe Rogan from getting sick for the last 15 years, but this is a new virus that’s not all that predictable.  

If this was just a matter of personal health, there wouldn’t be much reason for the rest of us to care what young people decide to do. But how many young people choose to get vaccinated could shape the future of the pandemic. It could also have an impact on immune-compromised people, in whom the vaccines are likely less effective.

Despite what some experts have said, the vaccines are unlikely to be 100% effective against severe illness and death in everyone, and scientists are starting to find examples of people with autoimmune disease or recent organ transplants who are taking immune-suppressing drugs that are interfering with the efficacy of the vaccines. (There’s a great article on immune-suppressed people in the journal Science, introducing some of the folks who could still be at risk after being vaccinated.)

The more people get vaccinated, the less the virus circulates. And so getting your shots makes the world safer for people who are still vulnerable and often stuck in depressing, isolating situations.

Mass vaccination among the young and healthy also looks like our best hope for stopping new variants that could produce additional deadly outbreaks in the months or even years to come. The current vaccines work against most of the known variants, but what if a new one crops up? There’s still a lot that’s not known about the way the virus is mutating and evolving. Changes in the virus may help explain why things were terrible in California and have now improved, and why India has gone the other direction.

Letting the virus circulate in a reservoir of unvaccinated people is courting danger. Encouraging everyone to get the vaccine is a good strategy in the face of uncertainty, given how many millions of doses have been given and how rare severe side effects appear to be.

And maybe Rogan gets that now. He has backpedaled from his earlier comments, defending himself by saying no reasonable person would turn to him for health advice. Since he does have a massive audience — his show is Spotify’s top podcast — it might have been better if he’s phrased things differently, to say that he hadn’t yet heard a coherent reason young healthy people should get their shots, rather than stating that he thought they shouldn’t.

He’s wrong that people can’t talk about the pros and cons of vaccinating young healthy people. But he’s right that we should be talking about it more.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast "Follow the Science." She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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