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COVID vaccine adviser plays down importance of feds' meeting on natural immunity, mandates

"I don't think this was a confidential meeting," Paul Offit told podcast, unaware that observers thought he was cracking the door on feds' dismissal of natural immunity.

Published: February 17, 2022 6:33pm

Updated: February 17, 2022 11:19pm

One of the nation's leading COVID-19 vaccine proponents and FDA vaccine adviser met with federal public health authorities after President Biden promised everyone 16 and older could get a booster dose. The discussion: how to treat natural immunity in pending vaccine mandates.

The audience: CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who left the agency in December.

Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and coinventor of a rotavirus vaccine, briefly discussed the meeting on a recent podcast, sharing his view that recovered individuals should be exempt from jab-or-job ultimatums.

He told Just the News he thought nothing of it at the time, to the extent he can't remember the date of the meeting. Now he's worried about the attention it's getting, declining to name the other "immunology and virology types" who were asked for their recommendations.

Offit said he was unaware his remarks halfway through an hourlong interview with "ZDoggMD" — hospitalist Zubin Damania — were being interpreted as an account of when the U.S. formally decided against allowing natural immunity exemptions from COVID vaccine mandates.

It's not the first time Offit has strayed from the COVID establishment. His Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) opposed the authorization of boosters starting at age 16, citing the lack of evidence that the benefits outweighed the risks of third shots in young adults, but that recommendation was overruled. The FDA's own estimate of myocarditis (heart inflammation) following COVID vaccination is as high as 1 in 5,000 for young men.

He would have preferred that the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices had made a "permissive recommendation" for boosters in young people, which would have made mandates harder to impose, but the group was "worn down by fiat," Offit said. 

The agency he advises, the FDA, has gone even further in the opposite direction. Last month it made a slick pro-booster video claiming that recovery followed by vaccination is still insufficient, because so-called hybrid immunity involved "a different variant than what's circulating right now," Omicron.

Hybrid versus natural immunity is "worth the discussion," Offit told Just the News, but he has broader problems with the nomenclature of COVID vaccine policy. "I don't like the word 'booster'" because it mischaracterizes the effect of a third dose on populations that aren't vulnerable.

Offit's public profile has grown as he has spoken personally about the effect of COVID policy, including by encouraging his college-age son not to get boosted. He said he was pained that Cornell University forced his future son-in-law to get boosted, putting him at "some risk for myocarditis."

"I don't have trouble speaking up," he said. But observers are misunderstanding what happened during the "free flowing 30-minute discussion" on natural immunity and mandates, and overstating its importance in what would become one of the most charged legal and cultural battles in America.

When the podcast host Damania asked about the "bugaboo" of natural immunity, which ongoing data suggest is "actually pretty good," Offit replied that it would be strange if COVID acted differently than other infections in that respect.

Natural infection leads to "high frequencies of memory B and T cells, which should protect you against serious illness," he said: No one would recommend giving people who had recovered from measles, mumps, rubella or chickenpox the vaccines for those infections.

"I mean, you've been vaccinated essentially," Offit continued, describing the response to COVID immunity as "probably more bureaucratic than anything else."

He mentioned the meeting with Fauci, Collins, Walensky and Murthy. "I don't think this was a confidential meeting," he said. "Hopefully it wasn't."

Offit said he and three others were asked to advise the administration on whether "natural infection basically should count in situations where the vaccine is mandated." They split, with Offit and one other recommending a natural immunity exemption and the other two opposing.

Demonstrating immunity for an exemption isn't technically hard, he said: "I would show that you have antibodies, say, to viral nuclear protein," which a vaccine wouldn't trigger.

Rather than explain how the agency leaders responded to the split, Offit got sidetracked on how "funny" it was that the household names at the meeting introduced themselves by name. 

The podcast episode went up in late January, but the conversation about the natural immunity meeting with the feds apparently flew under the radar until last week.

University of California San Francisco epidemiologist Vinay Prasad called the episode "jaw-dropping" and historically important for showing "how politics drove boosters/ ignored natural immunity."

Software CEO Alexandros Marinos clipped the discussion about the natural immunity meeting, calling the result "possibly the worst decision of the pandemic." Refusing to exempt the recovered diverted vaccine supplies from vulnerable groups, while those who were vaccinated after recovery ended up reporting more adverse events, he said, citing American and British research.

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Human rights lawyer Michael Senger, known for his analysis of the Chinese Communist Party's foreign-focused lockdown propaganda, gave the clip a new audience. "How did the consensus against recognizing natural immunity to COVID arise?" he asked rhetorically. Fauci and Collins "simply decided" the issue.

Lawyer Jenin Younes, whose New Civil Liberties Alliance has filed several natural immunity lawsuits against vaccine mandates, said Offit "described the meeting at which CDC decided to recommend that the naturally immune not be exempted from vaccine mandates."

That's going too far, Offit told Just the News. While the four agency leaders didn't have poker faces as the four advisers made their recommendations, he's sure the meeting "played no role" in the eventual vaccine mandate policy.

Everyone agrees that natural immunity plays some role in mitigating subsequent symptomatic infections, but the policy question is "how you functionally count that" for the purpose of a "potential opt-out for mandates," he said.

His support for a natural immunity exemption didn't get him disinvited from advising senior federal leaders. Offit said he was subsequently invited to a meeting about "defining the new normal," which is also the subject of a working group he's in led by University of Pennsylvania health professor Ezekiel Emanuel, a former NIH and White House official.

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