Over the last year of the US pandemic, a few key scientists and medical professionals have been lifted onto the national stage by their timely expertise. Americans turn to them for information, insight, and even pastoral care of a certain kind. Among those is the physician-geneticist Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and founder of BioLogos.
Timothy Dalrymple, president and editor in chief of Christianity Today, and Ted Olsen, CT’s executive editor, spoke recently with Collins about the Delta variant, vaccine hesitancy among evangelicals, and how Christians can come alongside communities that are still crippled by the virus.
Dalrymple: I understand there is an effort to get more folks vaccinated before July 4, and that’s the reason for this conversation. But first, tell us about the Delta variant.
This Delta variant, which is the one that decimated the country of India, is leading to all kinds of terrible tragedies. It has now also taken over in the United Kingdom, where now they’re wondering whether they can actually open up—which they planned to do—because this virus is spreading so rapidly.
It’s about 50 percent more contagious than the previous record holder, which is the one we call Alpha. But Delta is even more contagious. And unfortunately, this has now come to the US, and in the last couple of weeks, about 6 percent of the viruses that were isolated from infected folks are this Delta variant. It’s likely to grow very rapidly now, just because of its ability to spread.
It seems also really good at spreading amongst young people, who are often the folks who haven’t gotten around to getting vaccinated, because they thought maybe this wasn’t such a threat to them. And this certainly can be a threat.
Dalrymple: So what I’ve heard is that the Delta variant is more transmissible, perhaps more likely to lead to hospitalization, and yet the vaccines seem to be effective against it.
That’s the good news. If you get both doses—not just one but both doses—of the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine, you are protected about at the 90 percent level from getting sick from Delta. And that’s something you would really not want to pass up.
So I know there’s still about 90 million people out there who have not yet rolled up their sleeve for that first shot, and many people still on the fence wondering, “Is this really safe? Is it really something that I want to do for myself?” Here’s one more really good reason to get off the fence.
Look at the data. There’s lots of information there. Go to the website that’s called getvaccineanswers.org if you’re interested in having some of your questions answered. And then make a decision, because this is potentially going to ruin our plans for getting back to something approaching normal. If we have communities where vaccination levels are still pretty low, Delta is potentially going to cause another round of outbreaks, and it’s going to be preventable, if we can move quickly now to get shots in arms.
Dalrymple: I check the Johns Hopkins dashboard every day, and for a long time there, every state was blue, which indicates that the rates are still falling. Now I see a couple of states that are showing pink or red again. Are you starting to see a breakout of containment in a couple places?
I think that is unfortunately the case. For a while we could see rates falling in all 50 states, and boy, was that wonderful to see after what we’ve been through for the last year and a half. And really only back in January, where there were hundreds of thousands of new cases every day and thousands of deaths.
And we’ve come way down from that, by like a 90 percent drop in the number of cases and deaths, but that’s not a guarantee that will continue. As you’re saying, when you start to see a shift in a few places, that’s a warning that we’re not exactly where we need to be.
But we could be again, now that we’ve had these vaccines out there for almost a year, beginning with the original large-scale trials. We’ve been able to see just how effective and how safe they are in the real world, and for people who haven’t yet figured out that it’s something they want to take advantage of, this would be a great moment to look again.
Let me say one other thing that we have to think about, and that is those people who can’t get vaccinated. Those would be kids under 12. But it would also be people who have cancer, who are on chemotherapy. They could get it injected but it probably won’t work. They won’t have an immune system that can respond to it.
Or my friend who has a kidney transplant, who, because of the suppression therapy he has to be on, can’t respond to the vaccine. Those people are counting on the rest of us to develop enough community immunity that this virus won’t keep going and won’t threaten them. So yeah, this is a “love your neighbor” kind of moment. It’s not just about your own self-protection. It’s also about helping other people around you—and it seems like that’s what Christians have always been called upon to do and have always risen to that challenge. This would be a great time to do so.
Dalrymple: Obviously, we’ve been concerned about vaccine hesitancy among evangelicals. Do you have any data on whether that hesitancy is declining? Are we making new progress? I’ve had a hard time finding any updated data on that.
I look at the various polls that are put out by the Kaiser Family Foundation and others. It hasn’t been terribly encouraging. Yes, I am an evangelical Christian, and it does trouble me that this seems to be a group where the hesitancy is particularly strong. And there are lots of reasons and lots of questions, although many of those have really good answers.
But for some reason, in many churches, there’s still sort of this sense of, okay, well, we’re trusting in God here, and therefore we don’t need to reach out and take advantage of these vaccines that might, by something we’ve heard on social media, have something wrong with them.
First of all, there’s a lot of things on social media. Please don’t pay too much attention to those. Go and look at the real data—getvaccineanswers.org is a good place to do that. But secondly, if you’ve been praying for protection for yourself and your family from COVID-19, and now these vaccines come along that are safe and effective, it kind of seems to me like that’s an answer to prayer. It felt that way to me, being part of the process of getting those developed. Maybe think of it as a gift from God—but a gift you’ve got to unwrap.
Which means roll up your sleeve.
Olsen: I’m curious about the folks who have received both doses and have been masking. How can they further show love for neighbor, not knowing who may be unvaccinated? I’ve checked my box, I got a vaccine, but now I wonder, “There’s this Delta threat, and I don’t know if there’s anything I should be doing.” Not necessarily for myself, but for the community.
It’s a great question. I do think it’s a time for those of us who have had already the opportunity to get immunized—and I’m one of those—to become ambassadors to those who are still not sure.
Go to Google and type in “We can do this,” and it’ll take you to a site that has hundreds of organizations, hundreds of churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, you’ll see they’re right there, joined up together to try to be in that space of providing encouragement to people who are still not sure. Individuals can be ambassadors. Just go to We Can Do This, and they’ll send you a whole bunch of links to information that you can use to answer other people’s questions.
Because sometimes that’s the way people’s minds really get made up—not because they hear some government guy, that would be me, talking about this. It’s because of a neighbor who has the information, or their doctor, or their priest, or their clergyman. All of those are trusted voices. By the way, 90% of doctors have gotten immunized, and that tells you something about what they think about the importance of the vaccine. And the We Can Do This site is a place to empower yourself, if you want to be one of those trusted voices and aren’t sure how.
Dalrymple: Thank you for pointing us toward that. On the international front, are you concerned that sub-Saharan Africa might be the next India?
I’m really worried. I’ve been worried all along that Africa is in a vulnerable position because of health care delivery limitations; access to vaccines, which has been very limited up until now; and of course with these variants coming along that are even more contagious. So far Africa hasn’t been hit too hard, but there’s no reason that could not be in the future.
So we as citizens of the planet and people who care about our brothers and sisters, regardless of what country they’re in, we should be doing everything we can to try to help make sure that vaccines do become as readily available as possible as soon as possible.
One of the things that I’m caring most about as head of the NIH—we have a global health mission as well—is to try to see in the longer term what we could do to get vaccine manufacturing capabilities more widely distributed. Why don’t we have vaccine manufacturing in Ethiopia, in Senegal, in South Africa, instead of depending on just a few places in the world? We need to fix that in the long term.
Olsen: One last question. Other than prayer, is there something that American Christians can be doing to help folks overseas? How can we help organizations on the front lines?
Certainly for organizations that are committed long term to supporting health care in Africa, this is a crucial moment to be sure they have the resources they need. Because it won’t just be about vaccine doses. It’ll be about the personnel out there and delivering the vaccines in hard-to-reach places. People mostly have their favorites, I think, whether it’s World Vision or whatever. This is a time to double down on being generous, and Christians are pretty good at that.