UC Irvine gives professor pink slip over vaccine mandate
The medical ethics director claimed natural immunity to COVID-19 should exempt him from the requirement
Just over a week before Christmas, Aaron Kheriaty, a doctor and professor at the University of California, Irvine, received an unwelcome gift: a notice of termination from the university where he had served for 15 years.
Kheriaty, who was also director of the medical ethics program at UCI Health, had argued that his natural immunity as a result of contracting the COVID-19 virus in 2020 was more robust than that conferred by vaccines. He declined to get the jab. In November, university administrators placed the once-popular professor on unpaid and indefinite leave after he challenged the university’s vaccine mandate. Last month, his stand cost him his job.
“Two years ago I never could have imagined that the University would dismiss me and other doctors, nurses, faculty, staff, and students for this arbitrary and capricious reason,” Kheriaty wrote on his blog.
In a federal lawsuit filed in August 2021, he challenged the constitutionality of the university’s vaccine mandate on equal protection grounds, claiming the natural immunity of individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 is equal to vaccine-conferred immunity. Less than two months later, a U.S. District Court judge disagreed, concluding the university had a rational basis for treating individuals with infection-induced immunity the same as those not yet obtaining such natural immunity, requiring both to take the vaccines. Kheriaty has appealed.
Whether natural immunity is as effective as vaccine-conferred immunity—or more effective, as Kheriaty contends—is unclear.
In a recent three-part series in The New Atlantis, editors Ari Schulman and Brendan Foht surveyed the research on natural immunity. “The fact is, right now we don’t have clear evidence that natural immunity is much worse than vaccination, and so it doesn’t make sense to treat the naturally immune differently than the vaccinated,” the journal editors concluded. “What we can be sure about is that fairness demands that we treat like cases alike, and knowing what we know now, that’s what we should do when it comes to natural immunity and vaccination.”
That’s the conclusion Virginia’s George Mason University reached, ultimately granting a medical exemption to its vaccine mandate in August 2021 for law professor Todd Zywicki. (The exemption came two weeks after Zywicki sued the school over the mandate.)
Kheriaty has moved on to work with the Ethics & Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. For him, it may be too late for the University of California, Irvine, to change course, yet his case may be a bellwether for others pleading natural immunity and asking for a more nuanced approach under the COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
“I think that the conviction that I need to follow my conscience, and not ignore it, that comes from my Catholic faith,” Kheriaty told the Catholic News Agency last October. “I have a responsibility as an ethicist to try to uphold the basic principles of medical ethics that I profess and that I teach.”
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