Idaho lawmakers want to criminalize mRNA vaccines. Here's what happens if their bill passes

Anti-vax Republicans lawmakers are taking a page from abortion bans — and public health experts are worried

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published February 23, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

Syringes with Moderna's COVID vaccine are prepared at the vaccination center at Brill. (Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Syringes with Moderna's COVID vaccine are prepared at the vaccination center at Brill. (Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Political polarization in the United States has created bitter divides over all kinds of public health measures — ranging from abortion rights to COVID-19 protections. Yet in Idaho, a deep-red state in which Donald Trump carried 63.8% of the popular vote in the 2020 election, Republican legislators are taking their conspiratorial beliefs regarding COVID-19 a step further by attempting to criminalize mRNA vaccines. 

Indeed, last week two Republican lawmakers in Idaho introduced House Bill 154 proposing that "providing" or "administering" mRNA vaccines should be criminalized. Specifically, doing so would be a misdemeanor.

"I think conservatives were very opposed to lockdowns and mask mandates, which were not shown to be very effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19; that opposition seems to have led to a distrust of the mRNA vaccines." 

"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person may not provide or administer a vaccine developed using messenger ribonucleic acid technology for use in an individual or any other mammal in this state," the bill states. "A person who violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor." In other words, doing so could result in jail time and/or a fine.

If passed, the bill proposes that the law should go into effect this summer on July 1, 2023.

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters a new phase, the proposed legislation is a reminder that some GOP lawmakers aren't done fear-mongering over COVID-19 vaccines just yet. "We have issues that this was fast tracked," Idaho state Sen. Tammy Nichols stated, though the notion that the vaccine was "rushed" has been consistently pointed out as a myth by experts. "There's no liability, there's no access to data," Nichols added, which is also false

As Salon has previously reported, mRNA vaccines changed the course of the pandemic; the technology, which was novel at the time, allowed for an effective vaccine to be developed in record time. Yet what the scientific community saw as a historic moment for biotechnology turned into a polarizing debate among American lawmakers who fell for conspiracy theories and misinformation surrounding the vaccines — marking a pivotal turning point for the anti-vaccine movement, one in which some legislators can now act upon their scientifically unsupported beliefs.

"The mRNA vaccines are powerful and have saved millions of lives since the roll out," Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Salon. "I think conservatives were very opposed to lockdowns and mask mandates, which were not shown to be very effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19; that opposition seems to have led to a distrust of the mRNA vaccines, but I think we should have nuance in our response and understand that vaccination is the key to combating any pandemic."

mRNA, or messenger RNA, refers to a single-stranded RNA molecule that provides instructions on protein production. Due to its structure, these molecules are short-lived — meaning that once mRNA is injected in a patients' body, it disappears quickly after it enters a cell and instructs the cell to produce a copy of a protein, which in the case of the COVID vaccine is called Spike.This is how mRNA vaccines work: by providing cells with a blueprint for a part of a virus, which in return gives the cells an opportunity to respond to the virus posing a threat.

Prior to the development of mRNA vaccines, all vaccines contained either a dead or weakened version of a pathogen, which the immune system would then learn to recognize. Yet mRNA vaccines contain a "blueprint" for how to make a piece of the virus in question, enough for the immune system to recognize and identify it once it does infect.

It's true that mRNA vaccines are a relatively new technology, but they have been in development for decades and are likely to be the vaccine of the future. In part, that's because mRNA vaccines are easier to produce within a shorter period of time, and easier to modify in the future if necessary. As the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) wrote in March, mRNA vaccine technology has the potential to treat diseases like malaria and cystic fibrosis, tuberculosis and hepatitis B. The mRNA vaccines have been successful in protecting the vaccinated against COVID-19. Despite breakthrough cases, they significantly reduced the likelihood of dying or being hospitalized from COVID-19.

"Banning mRNA vaccines will have a negative impact on public health," Gandhi said. "The most important predictor of life expectancy loss in a large analysis performed in late 2022 across most European countries, the United States, and Chile seems to be lower vaccination uptake, especially in individuals over sixty years old."

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Idaho isn't the only state to propose unscientific anti-vaccination legislation. By October 2022, nearly 80 anti-vaccine legislations had been introduced to state lawmakers. Under Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida was the only state to not not pre-order COVID-19 vaccines for kids under 5 over the summer. Currently, in North Dakota, state legislators are considering various anti-vaccination bills, including one that would ban colleges and universities from requiring or promoting COVID-19 shots.

Academics studying the change say the anti-vaccination movement isn't new, but over the past decade there's been a resurgence of anti-vaccination rhetoric in politics. "Historically, anti-vaccine rhetoric has had minimal policy impact because bipartisan political leadership strongly endorsed the safety and effectiveness of vaccines," researchers wrote in The Lancet in 2021. "However, in recent years, anti-vaccine activism has received support from some state-level Republican officials during legislative debates over bills to improve vaccine uptake."

Seema Mohapatra, a professor of law at SMU Dedman School of Law, told Salon that the basis of the bill proposed in Idaho is similar to the lawsuit filed last November alleging that the longstanding approval of mifepristone (a medication abortion drug) should be revoked because it was allegedly based on incomplete data. Such legislative proposals question the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) authority to regulate medicines in states.

The proposed legislation in Idaho is also similar to the way in which anti-abortion legislators are approaching abortion bans, by criminalizing the provider.

"It's ostensibly based on safety concerns very similar to abortion, where both mifepristone and misoprostol are extremely safe," Mohapatra said. "In my opinion, it is contrary to federal law, the FDA's argument would be stronger."

Mohapatra added: "Federal courts have been staffed by ideological judges, so I couldn't predict the eventual lawsuit would go."

Mohapatra said this proposed legislation speaks to a "dangerous" place to be in terms of health science law.

"We are in a place where science is not seen as objective, it is seen as an opinion," Mohapatra said, adding regardless of what happens, every time a legislation like this is proposed it gives anti-vaxxers more credibility. "Just the fact that this is proposed gives a platform for anti-science."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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