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Professor granted vaccine exemption after he sues university to recognize natural immunity

George Mason University says it has no plans to recognize natural immunity. Public interest law firm is looking for others to sue in Virginia.

Updated: August 18, 2021 - 11:23pm

George Mason University granted a veteran law professor a medical exemption from its COVID-19 vaccine mandate after he filed a lawsuit demanding recognition of his natural immunity, according to his lawyers.

But the Virginia public university has not updated its policy to recognize recovery from prior infection, as proven by antibody testing, as an accepted alternative to vaccination or exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

For that reason, the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) said it "continues to explore litigation against GMU." The public interest law firm implied it's scrutinizing other Virginia public universities, asking COVID-recovered faculty to get in touch if their schools are "similarly disregarding the scientific facts surrounding naturally acquired immunity."

The development comes as a raft of new research shows natural immunity is durable and sometimes more protective than vaccine-induced immunity. Todd Zywicki, the GMU professor, has been on the Twitter warpath sharing such research since he lost his initial battle for recognized immunity.

He mocked the CDC Wednesday for misrepresenting the significance of a methodologically flawed Kentucky study that purported to show improved protection for recovered individuals after vaccination, but at best showed a negligible difference between COVID reinfection rates based on vaccination.

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"GMU has assured Prof. Zywicki that he will not be subject to disciplinary action, and that he will be allowed to hold office hours and attend in-person events provided he maintains six feet of distance," NCLA said.

The professor also must get tested for the novel coronavirus once a week on campus "at no cost to himself," which is a "favorable result" that should encourage other recovered people to challenge "irrational vaccine mandates."

NCLA litigation counsel Jenin Younes told Just the News that the terms were "discussed in a conference and confirmed via email," but spokesperson Judy Pino declined to provide documentation of the agreement. Zywicki confirmed he had no direct communication with his employer of a quarter century.

The court docket hasn't been updated since Aug. 9, six days after the suit was filed, with no GMU response. Pino said she should have "more clarity in the coming days on that front" and pledged to identify "any faculty that we've heard from if and when we file additional litigation on this issue."

The university issued a lengthy statement late Wednesday to rebut unspecified "public reports," emphasizing GMU "has not entered into any settlement" with Zywicki and that it can't comment on his exemption status under state law.

It has not and "does not plan to give" natural-immunity exemptions, which "would not be consistent with current medical science or public health guidance." The university cited CDC and FDA guidance but not published research.

"Professor Zywicki has been treated the same as any other Mason employee and is required to comply with all Mason policies regarding vaccination, testing, face coverings, physical distancing, and other COVID safety precautions," GMU said. "His litigation had no impact on the consideration of his request for a medical exemption from the vaccination requirement."

Natural immunity better at stopping variants

The university took an early uncompromising posture toward employees who resisted sharing their vaccination status by promising to remove their eligibility for merit pay increases

Zywicki threatened to sue when GMU refused to accept natural immunity as an exemption. He published statements from his doctor about why vaccination is dangerous for him and two co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration on the effectiveness of natural immunity.

The public warning from NCLA apparently prompted President Gregory Washington to issue a threat to fire employees who "fail to receive an exemption and do not disclose their status and receive the vaccine." That language was removed after Just the News asked about it.

The professor has continued to hammer the university since filing suit in early August. 

The Wall Street Journal published his op-ed laying out its acceptance of vaccines with documented lower effectiveness than from natural immunity, including Johnson & Johnson and Chinese vaccines.

He also cited research that vaccination carries more frequent and worse side effects for previously infected people, and the inferiority of "spike protein"-designed vaccines against variants such as Delta, because "natural immunity recognizes the entire complement of SARS-CoV-2 proteins."

The medical exemption form used by GMU - which was not posted when Zywicki made his initial threat - may be vague enough for the university to save face. It requires a medical provider to share a diagnosis under which "administration of the immunizing agents may be detrimental to this individual’s health," such as the shingles reactivation his doctor highlighted.

Zywicki and Younes, his lawyer, went on CNN and Virginia talk radio to discuss the case in the days before NCLA announced the agreement.

The professor has kept up the tutorial on Twitter, pointing followers to a peer-reviewed observational study of breakthrough infections published last month in Clinical Infectious Diseases, an official journal of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. 

It found that unvaccinated U.K. healthcare workers with previously detected COVID infection had substantially lower viral loads than their vaccinated counterparts with prior infections - a difference of seven cycle thresholds. (The lower the cycle threshold, the higher the viral load.)

The latter group had only slightly lower viral loads than unvaccinated workers without prior infection - less than two cycle thresholds higher. Zywicki emphasized the study found "an unexpected rise" in positive test results for vaccinated individuals "above baseline levels in the first two weeks following vaccination, which remained to some extent after adjustment."

A preprint study of Qatar's national database of vaccinations and testing, also published last month but awaiting peer review, similarly found the lowest viral loads in unvaccinated recovered individuals. 

An older preprint study by New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in the early days of widespread vaccination, found a second vaccine dose actually worsened immunity in recovered individuals. The researchers recommended "at least temporarily" withholding a second shot "to prevent a possible contraction of their spike-specific memory T cell immunity."

The peer-reviewed version in Cell Reports this month, however, changed the warning about the second dose. It now says "a second dose … may be not necessary" because recovered individuals "reach their peak of immunity after the first dose."

Other medical professionals are questioning the vaccine-at-all-costs approach. Physician Nicole Saphier, author of a book on "playing politics with science" during COVID-19, tweeted that several friends and colleagues were leaving their jobs due to vaccine mandates. 

They are "waiting for full FDA approval" of the vaccines, which remain under emergency use authorization, "or have antibodies" from prior infection, she said. "Is this really the respect frontline workers deserve after working through a pandemic?"

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