Two Republican lawmakers in Idaho have introduced a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for anyone in the state to administer mRNA-based vaccines—namely the lifesaving and remarkably safe COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. If passed as written, it would also preemptively ban the use of countless other mRNA vaccines that are now in development, such as shots for RSV, a variety of cancers, HIV, flu, Nipah virus, and cystic fibrosis, among others.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Tammy Nichols of Middleton and Rep. Judy Boyle of Midvale, both staunch conservatives who say that stand for freedom and the right to life. But their bill, HB 154, proposes that “a person may not provide or administer a vaccine developed using messenger ribonucleic acid [mRNA] technology for use in an individual or any other mammal in this state.” If passed into law, anyone administering lifesaving mRNA-based vaccines would be guilty of a misdemeanor, which could result in jail time and/or a fine.
While presenting the bill to the House Health & Welfare Committee last week, Nichols said their anti-mRNA stance stems from the fact that the COVID-19 vaccines were initially allowed under emergency use authorizations (EUAs) from the Food and Drug Administrations, not the agency’s full regulatory approval. “We have issues that this was fast-tracked,” she told fellow lawmakers, according to reporting from local news outlet KXLY.com.
The EUAs for the two mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines were issued in December 2020 and the FDA has subsequently granted full approval to both (Pfizer-BioNTech’s in August 2021 and Moderna’s in January 2022). This was pointed out to Nichols in the hearing last week.
“They ultimately were approved under the ordinary approval process and did ultimately, you know, survive the scrutiny of being subjected to all the normal tests,” Rep. Ilana Rubel, a democrat from Boise, said.
Nichols seemed unswayed by the point, however, with KTVB7 reporting that she responded that the FDA’s approval “may not have been done like we thought it should’ve been done.”
It’s unclear what Nichols meant by that statement or why any potential questions about the regulatory review of two specific vaccines would justify criminalizing the use of all vaccines using a similar platform.
To date, more than 269 million people in the US have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine, and over 700 million doses of mRNA-based vaccines have gone into American arms, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency keeps close tabs on safety through various national surveillance systems. Although the shots do carry some risk (as is the case for any medical intervention), they have proven remarkably safe amid widespread use of hundreds of millions of doses in the US and worldwide. A study released late last year found that COVID-19 vaccination averted more than 18 million additional hospitalizations and more than 3 million additional deaths from the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
There have been rare reports of adverse events, including blood clots and inflammation of the heart muscle and lining (myocarditis and pericarditis). However, these problems are very rare and in the case of myocarditis and pericarditis, they tend to be mild. Independent health experts who advise the FDA and CDC have consistently determined that the risk of developing these conditions does not outweigh the benefits of vaccination.
mRNA-based vaccines made their public debut amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but researchers at the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies had been working toward these vaccines for decades beforehand. In fact, by 2016, Moderna began working with the NIH to come up with a general design for mRNA-based vaccines. One of their first targets for such a vaccine was a relative of SARS-CoV-2, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus. By 2019, Moderna and the NIH set out plans for a clinical trial of an mRNA vaccine against the Nipah virus.
Generally, the vaccines work by delivering to our cells a snippet of artificially stabilized genetic code—in the form of messenger RNA—which is packaged in a fatty coating. In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, the bit of genetic code is for making a critical protein from SARS-CoV-2 called the spike protein, which typically juts out from the surface of the virus’ surface and helps it invade human cells. Once the vaccine’s fatty package is delivered, our cells translate the mRNA code into a protein—the spike protein, in this case—which can then be used to train immune cells to identify and attack invaders with the same protein—in the case, SARS-CoV-2.
With the massive success of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, expectations are high that the platform can be used to target a wide variety of other infectious and non-infectious diseases. Moderna, for instance, has a wide pipeline of mRNA-based vaccines in the works. Already this year, the company reported findings from a late-stage clinical trial indicating their mRNA-based vaccine against RSV (respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus) was highly effective. RSV is a common respiratory virus that can be deadly to older adults and young children.
In Idaho, it’s unclear if Nichols and Boyle’s bill will make it through the committee and further into law. However, its introduction fits into a worrying trend by conservative lawmakers for attacking lifesaving vaccination and evidence-based medicine, generally.