By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist & Reflector
FRANKLIN — Recent statistics reveal that less than half of the United States population has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19.
According to Becker’s Hospital Review (visit site for full list of statistics), a total of 135,867,425 Americans have been fully vaccinated. That represents 40.9 percent of the country’s population as of June 1, according to data from the Center for Disease Control.
Only five states reported that more than 50 percent of their population was fully vaccinated — Vermont, 56.38 percent; Maine, 54.45 percent; Massachusetts, 53.84 percent; Connecticut, 53.68 percent; and Rhode Island, 51.76 percent.
Most Southern states rank near the bottom of the list. Tennessee is 47th among the 50 states — along with the District of Columbia — with 2,173,313 or 31.82 percent of the population having been fully vaccinated. Tennessee is followed by Louisiana (31.3 percent), Arkansas (31.23), Alabama (29.23) and Mississippi (27.13).
Other Southern states include Florida (39.18 percent), North Carolina (36.16), Texas (35.61), South Carolina (33.83) and Georgia (32.1).
Among the thousands of scientists, doctors and others who have been involved in the development of a vaccine for COVID-19 are three “alumni” of the Baptist Student Union (now Baptist Collegiate Ministry) at Vanderbilt University in the early to mid-1990s — Buddy Creech, Josh Denny and Sheri Wilcox.
“It has been inspiring to be in contact with researchers working at the center of vaccine development,” said Bill Choate, BCM director for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. He was the BSU director at Vanderbilt when the three of them were students.
“Since they were undergraduates, God’s been at work in the lives of these fine Christian physician/researchers. They have been contributing to the health of our nation and the world for years now,” he noted.
“When your loved one is at risk for serious disease, you bring them to a great research hospital for the best treatment possible. The medical specialists you depend on are the same ones developing today’s vaccines. Many of them are extraordinary people who love Jesus and are in medical research as a way of following Him,” Choate said.
The Baptist and Reflector posed questions to the three Vanderbilt graduates about their involvement and thoughts on the COVID vaccine.
What contribution has your organization made to the development or distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine?
Creech directs the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, a National Institute of Health-funded research group that is often called into action to study new vaccines and therapeutics during pandemics.
“We played a key role in the 2009 swine influenza pandemic and we have been working on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines since February 2020,” he said.
Creech noted that Vanderbilt “has been an epicenter for coronavirus research for three decades” and that its influence has been substantial. As we move into a new phase of the pandemic, Vanderbilt has led the charge for evaluation of new therapeutics and new vaccine candidates,” Creech said.
Josh Denny is chief executive officer of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) All of Us Research Program, which seeks to enroll one million individuals across the U.S. to accelerate biomedical research.
Denny noted that NIH was developing vaccine platforms “years before we knew about SARS-CoV-2,” the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“It was this ongoing scientific research that helped propel the remarkable speed of the current vaccines,” Denny said.
In addition, the All of Us Research Program has been collaborating with other organizations to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on people from all walks of life, he added.
The data collected has helped to answer some important questions about COVID-19 such as when the virus may have arrived in the United States and how it spread, Denny said.
Sheri Wilcox serves as senior director of Global Scientific Engagement at SomaLogic. She noted that her organization has not conducted vaccine studies but has analyzed a lot of data on COVID-19 patients.
“Our analyses contribute to understanding the underlying impact that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has on the body,” she said.
What aspect of the overall vaccine development process has given you the most joy or hope?
Wilcox observed that finding the right vaccines meant lots of research and data had to be collected. “I know a lot of people were frustrated with somewhat ‘changing stories’ and also ‘changing guidance’ early in the pandemic but that’s how science works. When we get new data, we should be willing to change our hypothesis rather than just stick to our original story,” she said.
“It was amazing to see so many people across industries come together to learn as much as we could, as fast as we could, without silos or egos,” she added.
Though she was not directly involved, she noted that watching “a vaccine become available so fast was incredible. Everyone came together to be able to skip over things that normally take a lot of time, like market research, to focus on the critical aspects of safety and efficacy.”
Denny recalled the words of his boss, Francis Collins, director of the NIH and a professing Christian, who refers to NIH as the “National Institute of Hope.”
“That has really stuck with me,” Denny said, because the vaccine development process “is a great example of how research brings hope and discovery. This pandemic has brought much pain and grief, but we now have tremendous hope that we can vaccinate as many people as possible in every community and from every background around the world,” he said.
“By doing so, we can not only see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we can also start to see friends and family again — not on a screen, but in person with arms embraced.”
Creech said the process has shown what can be accomplished when investments are made in fundamental basic science and discovery, even when the direct application to human health is not clear.
Information learned over the last three decades directly led to successful vaccines, he said.
The process also has shown “what we can accomplish when we have laser focus,” Creech said. “Since March of 2020, we have done nothing but eat, sleep and vaccinate.
“It’s been a remarkably busy year but we have been able to focus only on COVID. As a result, we have made tremendous strides and the clinical trials have been rigorously carried out because we had the time and resources to do them.”
Do you have concerns about anyone you love receiving the vaccines available within the United States.
“Not at all,” Creech responded. “Though my family of five had the disease in March 2020, all that are eligible for vaccination have been vaccinated,” he said.
“It’s one of the ways we can protect those around us. All of us are low risk for complications; however we are in community with those who are older (parents and grandparents) and others who are immunocompromised or cannot get the vaccine for one reason or another. It’s our way of cocooning them so that they are more protected than if we were not vaccinated,” he said
Wilcox agreed. She noted her entire family, ranging from her 21-year-old daughter to her 79-year-old in-laws, have been fully vaccinated. “I’ve been excited to be able to alleviate fears and encourage extended family in other parts of the country when they have had questions.
“In fact, as Christians, I think we should be the first ones lining up to get vaccinated. We are called to care for ‘the least of these.’ What better way can we care for those who are more vulnerable to complications of the virus or help our friends who are small business owners get opened back up than to try to get this thing out of our environment before variants develop?”
Likewise, Denny has no concerns about people he loves getting the vaccine. “In fact, my wife was even a vaccine clinical trial participant and I took my 13-year-old son for his first vaccine recently after the vaccine was authorized for use in children ages 12-15,” he said.
Denny added that all of his family who are eligible have been vaccinated, including his 90-year-old grandmother. “It’s been so wonderful to spend time with them again. This is a moment to celebrate as we can begin to return to a sense of normalcy and get back to doing the things we love,” he said.
How does your Christian faith generally inform your calling to science and medical research?
Creech, who came to know Christ through the youth ministry at Silverdale Baptist Church in Chattanooga, observed that “as Christians, we are called to truth — all truth is God’s truth.”
Seeking to understand how God created the world and how He sustains it, “is important as we understand God’s character and how we are to tend to His creation,” Creech said. He added that “what we are able to do is offer the temporary healing that God has provided through medicine as a way to point to the eternal healing found only in Christ and His gospel.”
Denny agreed with Creech’s assessment that “all truth is God’s truth.”
“God gave us a special and general revelation for a reason. They are complementary and interrelated. It is also a fundamentally Christian perspective that the world is knowable, that there is truth, and that we have a responsibility to use it to help those who are suffering,” he continued.
“That’s why Christianity has been at the center of science and health for centuries, establishing most of our first universities and hospitals. I find creation more miraculous and my faith strengthened, the more I learn about the world, biology, physics, or even philosophy,” Denny said.
Wilcox observed that one of the first jobs God gave to His people was to care for the world He provided. “He gave us the ability and desire to try to understand what’s going on around us, not just for curiosity’s sake, but to help others,” she said.
“He doesn’t want us to hand over all learning to non-believers as if there’s something more noble about ignorance and blind faith. I think it’s my responsibility to learn what I can and use it for good,” she stressed.
“We’re told to do our work as if working for Him and that applies across all disciplines. I think there’s beauty in what we learn and how we can relate it to God,” Wilcox observed.