Walking in Fear

Speculative Fear About Obesity and a COVID Vaccine

Sarah Varney at the Kaiser Health News has a gift for us. A hypothetical concern about a hypothetical vaccine that hypothetically works – unless you have obesity. Our world’s “salvation hinges on a vaccine,” she says. But “the obese” are going to screw it up. They “could undermine the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine.”

We don’t have much use for speculative fear mongering. Because real concerns deserve our attention first.

Vaccine Advice from a Nutrition Expert

The foundation of this story is a declaration that there’s “no way” we’ll have a vaccine that works for “the obese.” Varney obtained that quote from Raz Saikh, an associate professor of nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill. He seems to be a distinguished researcher on the subject of fatty acids. However, we can find no evidence that he’s also an expert on vaccines.

Varney does point to a study of vaccines in people with obesity. But of course, it’s a study of influenza vaccination. Despite much confusion, the fact is that COVID-19 is very different from the flu. It’s a different virus, with different complications, and the vaccine for it – assuming we get one – will be very different from a seasonal flu vaccine.  So speculating about how a COVID-19 vaccine will work based upon how the flu vaccine works is not smart.

Facts are better than speculation. And the fact is that COVID-19 vaccines are being tested in people with obesity. It would be hard for a vaccine that doesn’t work in people with obesity to show efficacy in clinical trials. Duh.

A Great Way to Promote Stigma

However, if your goal is to promote stigma, fear mongering is a great way to go. To stigmatize a health problem, you need four pillars, says Professor Rachel Smith. They are a mark, a label, a threat, and blame. This story does a fine job of hyping the threat – even though it’s only hypothetical. We also note Varney’s dismissive use of the “obese” label to refer dismissively to people who are living with obesity. So her story covers the label pillar, too. Though the blame angle in this article is implicit, it’s a pretty strong theme.

All in all, this reporting does a fine job of making something out of nothing. Unfortunately, that something serves mainly to promote stigma while offering no enlightenment. Kaiser Health News should do better than this.

Click here for the article and here for the 2017 study of influenza in people with obesity. For relevant perspective on adipose tissue and immune function, click here.

Walking in Fear, photograph © Giuseppe Milo / flickr

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August 7, 2020