Doctor Aaron Kheriaty will soon be suspended without pay from his post as a professor of psychiatry in the University of California-Irvine’s School of Medicine. He has been threatened with being fired for his refusal to obey a COVID-19 shot mandate, a demand that led him to file a federal lawsuit against his employer. Yet he is at peace, he says, thanks to his Catholic faith.
“Without prayer and the sacraments and my faith that God is a loving and providential Father, I’m quite confident that I wouldn’t be able to persevere under these circumstances,” Kheriaty said in a wide-ranging interview with Catholic World Report. “If I seek to do His will and if I try to prayerfully discern whether this is the right thing to do under the circumstances, that He will protect me and He will take care of me and my family.”
Kheriaty, who also serves as director of the medical ethics program at UCI Health in Orange County, was initially put on “investigatory leave” after refusing to comply with the vaccine mandate. Within a week, the university warned, that will become an unpaid suspension. This all flowed from his Aug. 18 federal lawsuit, which alleges the University of California vaccine mandate violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In July 2020, Kheriaty contracted COVID-19. As a survivor, he has natural immunity that he argues is likely superior to protection offered by any vaccine.
The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California denied Kheriaty’s motion for a preliminary injunction to hold the vaccine mandate in abeyance as his case proceeds. A federal judge in Michigan ruled against a preliminary injunction in a similar case, ruling that no fundamental rights were at stake in Michigan State University’s vaccine mandate. Despite the initial setback, Kheriaty said he is totally confident, both in his assertion about the advantages of natural immunity, and that a coercive mandate violates his constitutional rights.
Author (with Fr. John Cihak) of The Catholic Guide to Depression, Kheriaty was active over the past 18 months as a consultant on the mental-health effects of COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns and other restrictions. Although the University of California has threatened to end Kheriaty’s distinguished career in the medical school’s Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior, he said his faith will see him through the fight.
“It has been a source of strength. As Catholics, we believe that all of our fortitude is on loan, so I don’t think I would be able to persevere under the circumstances, with the threat of losing my job, being the sole breadwinner for my family, my wife and five children,” Kheriaty said, “if not for my faith in God’s Providence, that if He closes this door to me professionally and I have to walk away from a job that I love, a place where I’ve spent my entire professional career as an academic physician, I have to trust that God will open other doors for me.”
In an interview with Catholic World Report, Kheriaty discussed his case, the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine mandates and the ethical issues brought to the fore by the governmental and societal push for everyone to take the mRNA shots.
CWR: At what point did you decide to file suit and challenge the University of California’s vaccine mandate?
Aaron Kheriaty: It was kind of this growing realization in my mind throughout 2021; January during the rollout, February I was concerned with the truncated clinical trials, but then the early data looked pretty good. So I thought, this is probably good for the elderly. My initial thought was let’s offer it to people that are at risk, offer it to people that want it, willing to take the risk of unknown long-term issues.
We’ve seen the ramping up of propaganda. There’s a difference between public health messaging that takes complex science and simplifies it for mass consumption—how do we give people accurate information in a way that they can understand, which is what we should be doing. You start with a behavior outcome that you want—a needle in every arm—and the messaging is geared toward getting that outcome at all cost. Very quickly you find yourself engaged in propaganda because it’s not about conveying accurate information, it’s about only conveying information that will give you a particular behavioral outcome.
When the idea of these mandates started coming out, when the university embraced the mandate, I co-authored a piece with Jerry Bradley in The Wall Street Journal [“University Vaccine Mandates Violate Medical Ethics”, June 14, 2021] saying that this is unethical. I probably made the decision in my own mind at that point that I’m not going to be forced to take the vaccine. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make a case for why these mandates are not justifiable.
I think on empirical grounds our central argument, our central claims are absolutely rock solid. I think a fair and impartial judgment should uphold my constitutional right in the way I’ve laid out.
CWR: Your colleagues at the University of California assembled extensive evidence promoting the advantages of the natural immunity to viruses that comes with surviving illnesses such as COVID-19. What is the primary argument for natural immunity?
Aaron Kheriaty: If you look objectively at the scientific data—and we argue at this point that the data is overwhelming for natural immunity; it’s every bit as robust as the data for vaccine immunity. Natural immunity confers between 95 and 99 percent immunity against reinfection. Most studies put the number at north of 99 percent. Reinfections are exceedingly rare, they’re almost always asymptomatic. There’s not a single reported case of someone getting reinfected and transmitting the virus to others, which is astonishing. We actually put that in our filing, in our legal documents.
It’s very risky to say ‘always’ or ‘never,’ because all they have to do is find one counter-example. Their experts could not find one documented case of someone transmitting the virus. We now have countless cases of so-called breakthrough infections and transmission from people who have been vaccinated. That’s now ubiquitous. The vaccines initially conferred a better immunity against infection. That immunity is declining with time and with new variants.
My immunity, as someone who has recovered from COVID, is between 95 and 99 percent effective. It is sterilizing, meaning there are no cases of transmission. And yet the person who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is considered ‘fully vaccinated’ under the university’s policy. They’re allowed back on campus, where my different form of immunity, which is as good—in fact it’s better—but I’m not allowed back on campus. That’s where the discrimination and equal protection come in.
Ethics issues, shot exemptions
CWR: What’s the primary ethics issue with the vaccine mandates?
AK: Because these vaccines don’t offer sterilizing immunity, the public health argument is significantly weakened. ‘Do it for the sake of others’ doesn’t work in the case of these vaccines. Then we have to fall back on the doctrine of informed consent for individual medical decisions. That means people need accurate information, which I worry that they’re not getting right now. They need the opportunity to freely accept or decline the medical intervention, which they’re not being given if they are subjected to a mandate that threatens them with the loss of their job, loss of ability to go back to school.
CWR: There has been an explosion of litigation over religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. What are your thoughts on the role these exemptions play?
Aaron Kheriaty: Of course religious exemptions have to be accepted. That’s a constitutional right, it’s a basic human right. Someone with pro-life convictions could come to the determination that under the circumstances, they can’t in good conscience take this vaccine because of its connection to aborted fetal tissue. That’s a perfectly morally acceptable decision on the Catholic understanding. There may be certain circumstances that these vaccines may be permitted as well, (as) that is what the bishops are teaching.
There also needs to be conscience exemptions for non-religious individuals. I’ve had students at the University of California reach out to me and say, ‘I have moral, ethical or conscience reasons to decline this vaccine, but I’m not a religious person.’ To their credit, they didn’t want to pretend to be a religious person to get a religious exemption. They were sort of left out in the cold without an option.
CWR: In the Michigan State University case, the U.S. district judge relied heavily on a 1905 Supreme Court precedent, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which dealt with a smallpox vaccine mandate. You have written that Jacobson should not be applied so broadly. What do you mean?
Aaron Kheriaty: Jacobson has been used to justify many different actions during the pandemic, not just vaccines, but many different heavy-handed measures, lockdowns and other things. The court really has never defined, but needs to define, what are the limits to the Jacobson holding and how is it framed or hemmed in?
It has been misapplied and continues to be applied very, very broadly. What is a balancing test, or what are the limiting kind of parameters for that ruling? I think it’s absolutely necessary now and it’s past time for the court to limit in a reasonable way, a constitutional way, the Jacobson precedent so it doesn’t continue to be misapplied. It basically gives enormous powers to unelected health officials in any situation that they deem or define as an emergency.
CWR: There are indications that the COVID vaccines have much lower ability to prevent infection than was reported during initial testing by the manufacturers. What do you make of that?
Aaron Kheriaty: Efficacy has declined, in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, below 50 percent against infection, which is below the threshold that’s required for FDA authorization. It may have been above that threshold when the FDA authorized it, but unfortunately the efficacy has continued to decline since then. The efficacy of the mRNA vaccines appears to be pretty short-lived—it starts to decline at four months.
For some of them, it’s now below 50 percent efficacy, which is a very, very leaky vaccine, which is why people are already talking about needing boosters only six to eight months after the second dose. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in these vaccines.
Vaccine safety issues
CWR: Vaccine safety is not part of your legal claim, but there are increasing reports of sudden deaths and a wide array of injuries—from miscarriages to conditions such as myocarditis—associated with the vaccines. As a physician, what are your safety concerns?
Aaron Kheriaty: The initial trials were very short, especially for a vaccine. They were only three months long, then they were halted. The placebo comparison bar was eliminated by offering all of those people the vaccine after three months. And the rigorous level of safety and efficacy monitoring that you get during a clinical trial stops once they halt the clinical trial. So we’re left with a passive surveillance system that doesn’t actively monitor a cohort over time. It just relies on self-reporting by physicians and health care professionals who notice problems and who connect the dots that the problems may be related to the vaccine. That system is sending up lots of warning flags that the safety issues are serious. The CDC has not followed up on most of those reports.
The risk is infinitesimally small for children, 99.9996 percent survival rate for children with COVID. That’s as close to perfect as you get in medicine. That’s as close to 100 percent as you get. It’s in the range of the chances of getting struck by lightning. Children are at far higher risk of drowning. We haven’t drained all of the swimming pools. They are at far higher risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident on the way to school, yet we haven’t set the speed limit to 15 miles an hour on all the streets and freeways here in California. We don’t behave this way when it comes to other areas of life, other risks. And yet now we’re talking about vaccinating children against a disease that doesn’t harm them, using a vaccine that has known risks and probably some unknown risks that haven’t been adequately studied and characterized yet.
CWR: An attorney in one of the New York vaccine mandate cases said what’s going on in society is creating a ‘caste of untouchables’ like you have in India, and the unvaccinated are the lowest caste. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Aaron Kheriaty: It seems pretty obviously true. If you look at New York City for example, the things that you are and are not allowed to do without a vaccine passport. It’s hard to think of other examples in recent history like this without drawing on South African apartheid or the caste system in India or the Jim Crow era prior to the civil rights movement. Those are the obvious analogies. In some ways, the restrictions are more severe for the unvaccinated. It’s not just that you have to sit at the back of the plane, you can’t even get on the plane. It’s not just that you have a separate place to sit at the lunch counter, but you can’t go into the establishment at all. I think that’s an accurate assessment.
CWR: What do you think it will take to end COVID vaccine mandates? Will it be court action?
Aaron Kheriaty: Ultimately I think the thing that’s going to stop these vaccine mandate are just people on the ground just refusing to comply. We’re starting to see that. That’s going to have more immediate and perhaps more profound effect than what happens in the courts.
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