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Sen. Mitt Romney calls for campaign to counter ‘anti-vaxxers’ as researchers race for COVID-19 shots

Sen. Mitt Romney sits and listens while attending the HELP Hearing: Implementing the 21st Century Cures Act on Capitol Hill in 2019.
Sen. Mitt Romney
Cheryl Diaz Meyer, for the Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney called for an aggressive campaign Wednesday to counter growing sentiment that vaccines, including one being developed for COVID-19, are harmful.

Describing them as “anti-vaxxers,” Romney said he’s been approached in Utah by people with “whole books” describing why vaccines are bad and made from adulterated sources.

“It’s not like just a social media phenomenon. There are literally books out there that are written to describe why vaccines are bad,” the Utah Republican said at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing.

Romney said he wondered if it makes sense for the government to undertake a comprehensive effort to dispel the growing sense that vaccines are bad.

“You could have debates. You call in these people who write these books and have discussions with them which are publicized. You could have an aggressive campaign on social media,” he said.

In the hearing, Romney asked National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams what government should and could do to resolve the debate and uncertainty over being vaccinated.

Collins said the amount of misinformation being readily spread by people with another agenda causes anger and frustration.

“We have a hard, hard road to go to try and counter that when so many people don’t see in their own experience the reason why this is such a lifesaving activity,” he said.

Collins said the country has benefited from the success of vaccines so that a generation has lost track that they are preventing diseases that take lives. He said 42,000 children born in 2009 would have died without the vaccines that are available.

“Well, they’re available now, but if they’re not getting used we’re facing that same kind of terrible consequence, and it is heartbreaking,” Collins said.

Adams said 90% of parents are getting their children immunized. Most of the other 10% aren’t true anti-vaxxers but are hesitant about vaccines.

“We need to work on educating them and engaging them and being compassionate with them and patient with them to answer their questions,” he said.

Collins told the committee that government and private researchers are working on six COVID-19 vaccines, three of which are in phase 3 of testing. He said they are working quickly based on science, but focused on making them safe. A vaccine could be ready by the end of 2020, he said.

“There will be no shortcuts,” Adams told the committee. “It will be safe or it won’t be moved along.”

On Tuesday, drugmakers rushing to produce COVID-19 vaccines vowed to not cut corners and to adhere to science.

In a public letter, nine companies agreed to submit the vaccines for clearance only when they’re shown to be safe and effective in large clinical studies. The chief executive officers for AstraZeneca, BioNTech, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co., Moderna, Novovax, Pfizer and Sanofi signed the letter.

“In the interest of public health, we pledge to always make the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals our top priority,” the executives wrote. “We believe this pledge will help ensure public confidence in the rigorous scientific and regulatory process by which COVID-19 vaccines are evaluated and may ultimately be approved.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in the hearing that vaccines should be a choice. Schoolchildren should not be mandated to have a COVID-19 shot because there’s little transmission between kids, they don’t get the disease as often and rarely die from it, noting the death rate among children .68 per million.

Collins said he couldn’t say whether the vaccine should be mandated for kids, but “.68 is not zero.”