In the spring of 2020, Eva Allen barely left her home. She was living in New Orleans with her young daughter and the pandemic was raging out of control. “I home schooled and had food delivered,” she says. “I was doing everything I could to keep my child safe.”
Over the next ten months, more than a dozen of Allen’s friends and family contracted the virus. A cousin ended up on a ventilator; a great uncle died. Allen, 39, knew firsthand the devastation caused by COVID-19. Even so, when vaccines became available in the spring of 2021, she couldn’t bring herself to get the shot. “I was afraid of the virus,” she says. “But I was terrified of the vaccine. I have an overarching mistrust of medicine and a fear of doctors and procedures. I was raised on stories of people who were hurt by vaccines. I was concerned about doctors doing harm.”
Today, approximately 30 percent of Americans remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, which has claimed more than 800,000 lives in the U.S. alone. Some vaccine skepticism has been stoked by a contingent of “anti-vaxxers,” who aggressively push their “vaccines are dangerous” message online, according to the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). This anti-vax group is small but effective: According to a separate report issued by the CCDH, up to 65 percent of online anti-vaccine content is produced by just 12 individuals.
The thing is, these anti-vaxxers don’t necessarily speak for the millions of regular people—a.k.a. the “vaccine hesitant”—who, like Allen, aren’t pushing an agenda. They simply have questions and concerns. “I worry about vaccine safety,” says Allen. “Because I don’t trust medical professionals not to injure me or my child.”
Allen is hardly alone—she is one of millions of vaccine skeptics. But lately, that number has been dwindling thanks, in part, to the tireless work of Azza Gadir, PhD, a 36-year-old Harvard-trained, self-proclaimed “science geek.” On nights and weekends, Gadir, an immunology expert, volunteers her time to speak with vax-hesitant folks one-on-one over Zoom to help explain exactly how the vaccines work and answer questions about their safety.
Since she started in June 2021, approximately 70 people have taken her up on her offer for a virtual sit-down—and only two of those individuals have opted not to get vaccinated after speaking with her. Gadir is a science communication pro, a vaccine whisperer. And we can all learn from her. You can also be a fly on the wall during her Zoom call with Allen, below. But first, how she got started…
“We can’t expect frontline workers to be the only ones talking about this.”
While Gadir may have a staggering success rate, she never anticipated spending her nights and weekends talking to strangers about lymph nodes and T-cells. But her life experiences and natural loquaciousness positioned her perfectly for this work. Born in London to Sudanese parents, Gadir spent her childhood surrounded by scientific chatter. Her mother is a professor of dentistry, her father works in agriculture, several other family members are doctors. The immune system has always fascinated Gadir, and she’s spent more than a decade researching how it works. Her doctoral work focused on Lupus; as a postdoctoral fellow, she studied food allergies at Boston Children’s Hospital.
But it wasn’t until 2018 that Gadir discovered her passion for making complex science digestible for everyone. As director of research and development for Seed, a startup company focused on the microbiome, Gadir managed experiments and figured out how to communicate results in a consumer-friendly way. These days, when not conducting one-on-one Zoom calls, Gadir works for a biotech company studying cancer immunology.
Having devoted her adult life to understanding the mysteries of the immune system, it’s no surprise that, in the early days of the pandemic, Gadir was drawn to information about the novel coronavirus and possible vaccines. She found herself devouring each new COVID study as it came online. To help her friends and family make sense of the onslaught of COVID-related science suddenly flooding the internet, Gadir began posting to her private Instagram account peer-reviewed and preprint studies worth checking out.
In July 2020, friends asked if she would make her account public so they could share her information, and she did. (It’s @azzagadir, by the way.) A few months later, a physician friend asked Gadir to join Clubhouse to help speak truth to conspiracy theorists who were gaining traction on the app. Gadir remembers one heated debate lasting more than four hours. During the call, listeners were DM-ing Gadir, thanking her for providing evidence that countered misinformation they’d previously believed. That’s when Gadir realized how much she loved talking about science, especially to people outside of academia. “I really liked being able to use my voice and connecting with people in real time,” she says. “That’s what I found rewarding.”
A few months after the COVID-19 vaccine became available, Gadir posted on her now public Instagram account an open invitation to anyone who had questions about it, telling them she’d make herself available to talk privately over Zoom. People began reaching out to Gadir on their own; other times concerned family members or friends would set up the call, hoping Gadir would explain things in a way their loved ones might hear. Indeed, if Gadir has a superpower, it’s her infinite patience and ability to answer any question—no matter how eyebrow raising—without a hint of judgement or scorn. She’s able to break through to people in a way only a neutral third party can. “Often people are having these conversations with family members who think they’re hysterical or brainwashed,” notes Gadir. “I strip the judgement and emotion out of it, because that doesn’t work.”
Gadir now spends up to six hours a week speaking to strangers from as far away as Australia and Singapore, helping people understand the data so they can make informed decisions about their health. “We can’t expect frontline workers to be the only ones talking about this,” she says. “They are exhausted. They need to protect their mental health.”
“People just want to be heard and to be able to ask questions, and they’re not always getting the opportunity to do that in a doctor’s office.”
Gadir loves talking science (so much so, that she seriously considered doing a Zoom session on the morning of her wedding day with a woman who insisted it was the only time she could make it work...Gadir ultimately thought better of it and declined). The conversations she has over Zoom can get intense. One woman reached out to Gadir as she was on her way to get vaccinated and was suddenly overcome with fear. Another woman contacted Gadir and immediately burst into tears. “I feel so much pressure to make a decision,” she told Gadir.
“People just want to be heard and to be able to ask questions, and they’re not always getting the opportunity to do that in a doctor’s office,” says Gadir. In one Zoom call, Gadir remembers a couple telling her that they couldn’t believe she’d spent an hour walking them through studies and sharing slides. “The man said, ‘I’m a cop, my wife’s a nurse, we don’t speak to a lot of scientists,’” she recalls. “We have to think about how to bridge that gap,” she adds. “Health anxiety is real.”
That anxiety is only heightened when it comes to keeping children safe. In the weeks after the FDA authorized COVID shots for young children, Gadir spoke to almost two dozen parents who had questions about inoculating their kids. One of those parents was Eva Allen, the woman from New Orleans who was wary of the vaccine despite her family’s devastating experiences with COVID.
“You can ask me anything. This is a no-judgement zone.”
I connected Allen with Gadir during the reporting of this story and sat in on their conversation. Via the audio clips below, you can too.
Gadir opens the dialogue by putting Allen at ease. “You can ask me anything,” she says. This is a no-judgment zone. I don’t make recommendations,” she adds. “I just want to help people make decisions based on actual information because there’s a lot of junk out there. So tell me where you’re at in the process and what your hesitations are.”
Allen explains that for more than a year of the pandemic, she tried to keep safe by isolating. Then in July 2021, after a rare visit with friends, she caught COVID-19. “I don’t have any underlying health conditions,” says Allen. “COVID was the sickest I have been in my life. I was vomiting foam. I thought for sure I was dying.”
After she recovered, Allen reconsidered her stance on the vaccine. “I worried that if I caught COVID again, I might not make it.” She received her first shot in the middle of August and the second two weeks later. “I realized that maybe my fears had been blown out of proportion,” she says. “I had no side effects and just went on with my day.”
But two months later, Allen’s fears came rushing back. On October 29, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use in children as young as 5. Allen had to decide if she should vaccinate her 6-year-old child. When she spoke to Gadir, a few weeks later, she was still on the fence.
During the call, Allen tells Gadir that her greatest concern is her daughter’s safety, and that she doesn’t feel there’s enough data available to say whether the vaccine is safe—or necessary—for kids. With that, Gadir is off and running, giving Allen a crash course in how vaccines work. Gadir often begins her Zoom calls with a clear explanation of vaccines and the immune system, which she says helps set the stage for the rest of conversation. “Vaccines are not changing your immune system,” says Gadir. “They're working with it.” The way Gadir explains it, a vaccine is sort of like a “wanted” poster warning your immune system of a potential intruder. The immune system takes the poster, runs over to the lymph nodes and says, “guys, start training.” Later, if you become infected with COVID-19, your immune system says, “Oh, we know what this is. We’ve seen the wanted poster! We’re ready to fight.”
► You can listen to a clip from Gadir’s conversation with Allen, in which she breaks down how vaccines function, here.
“I’m not saying the health-care system is all good or all bad; it can be both.”
Allen’s aversion to the vaccine stems from a legacy of family trauma, dating back to before she was even born. Allen, who is Black, says her great grandmother, Mary-Liza Florence, born in 1899, was “maimed” by a vaccine. “The story I was always told is that a doctor came to the family’s tobacco farm in West Virginia and gave my grandmother, a child at the time, a shot,” says Allen. “She went to sleep with her head resting on the arm where she’d been injected. The next morning, she woke up blind in one eye.” Florence’s damaged eye was eventually removed, “But that left her feeling disfigured and worthless,” Allen adds, explaining that her great grandmother went on to marry an abusive man because she thought she couldn’t do better. “I was taught vaccines changed the trajectory of my great grandmother’s life. She trusted a white doctor and his medicine, and it ruined her.”
The story, repeated often, became embedded in the family ethos, along with wrenching tales of newborns who became sick, or even died, after doctor-assisted hospital deliveries. Almost all the healthy babies in the family—including Allen’s daughter—were delivered by midwives, at home.
“You have to be close to death before you seek medical attention in my family,” she says. “That’s the way I was raised.”
Allen tells Gadir that it’s not only her family history that makes her wary of medical professionals either. Allen also points to examples of racism in the health-care industry, like the 1932 Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which Black men were denied treatment for four decades so doctors could study how the disease progressed. Here, Gadir connects with Allen on a personal level, telling her about her dad. “You are absolutely right to be concerned,” Gadir says. “My father has had racist experiences dealing with health care. But I would also say, health care and pharma saved my dad’s life because he had cancer. I’m not saying the health-care system is all good or all bad; it can be both.”
“I suppose that’s true,” says Allen.
► Here, Gadir talks with Allen about her valid fears of racism in health care.
“In history, we have never ever had a vaccine cause an adverse event more than six weeks after it was administered.”
Allen, still skeptical of how the shot might affect her daughter, voices her concerns that there have “been no long-term studies about the effects of the vaccine.” In response, Gadir explains that vaccines should not be confused with therapeutic drugs that people take on an ongoing basis—think heart medications or antidepressants—which undergo years of testing before use since they’re used in a long-term fashion. “The mRNA vaccines only sit in your system for about three days and then they’re gone,” Gadir says. So if you’re going to have an allergic reaction to a vaccine, she explains, it would happen in the first few days or weeks. “In history, we have never ever had a vaccine cause an adverse event more than six weeks after it was administered,” she continues. “And that’s why, when it comes to long-term data, we monitor in the trials for only about eight weeks.”
Gadir says it’s helpful to think about having the flu, versus taking a daily medication, when trying to understand the potential long-term effects of a vaccine. “If you got the flu today, you wouldn’t expect to randomly have a symptom of that same flu two years from now,” Gadir offers. For Allen, Gadir’s explanation feels like a revelation: “I never thought of it like that before,” she says.
► Here’s another clip from their conversation, in which Gadir provides a more in-depth explanation of this concept.
“These concepts have been jargony and gate-kept for a long time, and they don’t have to be that way.”
For an hour over Zoom, Gadir not only addresses Allen’s anxieties, but jumps deftly from one topic to the next, as though anticipating Allen’s concerns even before she voices them. “You’re answering questions I didn’t realize I had,” says Allen. “I’m learning a lot.”
► Here, Gadir references the reams of studies that show the vaccine doesn’t affect fertility, something Allen is concerned about for her daughter’s future…
► …and discusses the possible effects of long-haul COVID on children, which impacts as many as 30 percent of people who contract the virus.
► Gadir also addresses Allen’s worries about myocarditis, a rare side effect associated with the vaccine and virus.
► She then takes a detour to explain the science surrounding autism and early childhood inoculations.
“We can’t be on the defense and just wait for disinformation to spread.”
Led by the Delta variant of COVID-19, the U.S. is experiencing a spike in new cases of the virus, surpassing the previous average of 100,000 cases a day. The rising numbers, as well as concerns about the new Omicron variant, have led Allen to reflect on her child's vaccine status and the conversation she had with Gadir. “I feel like I have a deeper understanding of how the vaccine works now,” she says. “I think we’re going to proceed. I feel much safer.”
Gadir believes that calm, shame-free conversations, like she shared with Allen, are key to getting more adults and children vaccinated. “When it comes to scientific communication, we can’t be on the defense and just wait for disinformation to spread before we say something,” she says. “We all have to be on the offense.” Being proactive can be simple, she explains, and even part of everyday chats with acquaintances. When Gadir gets in an Uber, for example, she finds the conversations often turn to COVID. She’ll tell the driver what she does, and many times the driver will pepper her with questions. Gadir hopes the information she shares during these casual encounters spreads to the drivers’ network of family and friends, with positive results. “A single conversation can dispel a lot of misinformation and that can have an enormous impact on a community,” she says. “You just never know.”
When it comes to sharing science with the masses, Gadir isn’t the only woman doing this work. Nini Muñoz, PhD, an electrical engineer and expert in data science, has also taken to social media (@Niniandthebrain on Instagram) to dispel misinformation about COVID-19. During the pandemic, Muñoz started making infographics illustrating the risks associated with contracting the virus and the safety of the vaccine. Like Gadir, Muñoz included links to studies for people interested in learning more; she’s now amassed 81.2K followers.
Gadir and Muñoz, who connected on Instagram, sometimes team up for Zoom calls in their spare time. “Azza explains the immune system and I help people understand probability and risk,” says Muñoz. Other times Muñoz does Zoom calls alone. One of her most memorable conversations was with a hospital nurse who’d become enraptured by Q-Anon-type conspiracy theories. The nurse’s daughter, concerned that her mother wasn’t vaccinated, reached out to Muñoz to set up the call. The nurse drilled Muñoz about lab leak theories and vaccine toxicity and Muñoz responded with evidence and facts. A few days later, she received a DM from the daughter saying her mother had been vaccinated. “You saved my mom’s life,” the daughter wrote.
Gadir and Muñoz are proof that individuals have the power to motivate people to get vaccinated, one conversation at a time. That one-on-one connection was key for Allen. “Azza addressed all of the things I had been afraid of,” she says. “She kind of brought me back down to earth. Everything I was focused on was sort of a shadowy fear, and her answers were very practical and tangible and helped pull me out of that space.”
Allen’s daughter got her first COVID vaccination shot in early December at her school in Brooklyn, NY, where she and Allen relocated. “Talking with Azza helped me identify major holes in my ability to make sense of this,” says Allen. “I don’t want to roll the dice with my daughter’s safety. This is a dangerous game. I realize now that the vaccine is going to help my daughter, not harm her.”