Politics

Who Killed Colin Powell?

How vaccine refusers endanger everyone else.

Colin Powell, with a painting and a security guard in the background
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2018 in Washington. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

In the past two weeks, COVID-19 has struck three well-known people. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had been fully vaccinated, died on Monday due to complications from the virus. Meanwhile, two men who had refused vaccination—conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager and Texas gubernatorial candidate Allen West—caught the virus but survived. On Fox News, these stories are being exploited to cast doubt on COVID vaccines and to suggest that people should rely instead on “natural immunity” or therapeutic drugs. But in fact, the three stories illustrate how vaccine refusers endanger everyone else. People like Prager and West don’t necessarily kill themselves. But by helping the virus to spread, they end up causing the deaths of people like Powell.

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West, a former congressman who stepped down this summer as chairman of the Texas GOP, disclosed last week that he had COVID. He said he had chosen not to get vaccinated but was doing fine, thanks to various therapies. In addition to unfounded or debunked remedies such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, he credited his recovery to monoclonal antibody infusion, which really does work.

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West told his followers that his recuperation showed therapeutics were “far better” than vaccines. He proudly declared that his insurance had covered the monoclonal antibodies and that his infection was actually a bonus, since now, in addition to the infused antibodies, “I have the natural immunity from having had the COVID.” Instead of getting vaccinated—which he condemned as “enriching the pockets of Big Pharma”—he urged his fans to follow his example. “Do not fear COVID,” he told them. “Put everything in [God’s] hands, and He will carry you through it.”

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West’s advice is terrible. In reality, COVID vaccines are free to recipients and cheap to deliver, whereas monoclonal antibody therapy, provided by pharmaceutical companies, costs more than $2,000 and consumes resources at already strained hospitals. Furthermore, getting immunity through infection is, on average, at least 1,000 times more dangerous than getting immunity through vaccination.

But the bigger problem with West’s advice is that it ignores how, by catching the virus, you might affect other people. Vaccines don’t just reduce your risk of getting seriously ill from COVID; they also make it far less likely that you’ll get infected in the first place or pass the virus on. In contrast, you can’t get monoclonal antibodies till you’ve been diagnosed. By then, you’re likely to have infected several other people. For weeks, as West campaigned for governor, he spoke at crowded indoor events. He says his wife felt her first symptoms around Oct. 3, and he had symptoms a couple of days later. Despite these warning signs, he spoke at two indoor political gatherings on Oct. 7. He posted a picture of himself addressing a “packed house” as he stood just a few feet away from unmasked attendees.

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Prager was even more reckless. On Monday, he announced that he had deliberately tried to get infected—and had eventually succeeded—by inhaling and exhaling next to thousands of other people. “I have engaged with strangers, constantly hugging them, taking photos with them, knowing that I was making myself very susceptible to getting COVID,” he told his listeners. “I hugged strangers in the thousands—literally in the thousands—while not being inoculated.” He said he had done this “in the hope I would achieve natural immunity and be taken care of by therapeutics. That is exactly what has happened.”

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Prager portrayed himself as courageous and vindicated. He boasted that he had taken monoclonal antibodies—in addition to hydroxychloroquine and other discredited remedies—and that thanks to his infection, he had acquired natural immunity, which he called “infinitely preferable” to vaccine immunity. He said he had “staked my own health” on the power of therapeutics. “I am a living example of how effective taking these therapeutics is,” he declared. “I have walked the walk on this matter, and here I am.”

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At no point in this monologue did Prager mention the risk he had posed to others. “I got it from somebody, and that’s the story,” he said of the virus. But that’s never the end of the story. The next question is who you gave it to. Studies indicate that on average, each person infected with the current variant of the virus passes it on to more than six other people, and three-quarters of these transmissions occur before the carrier shows symptoms. So if you deliver speeches to hundreds of people shortly before you’re diagnosed—or if you hug thousands of people while expecting to become a carrier—you’re endangering multitudes.

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Prager and West aren’t alone in this behavior. Millions of other Americans are likewise jeopardizing the people around them. When pollsters ask unvaccinated people why they’ve declined to get a shot, 59 percent say that among other reasons, they don’t think they personally need it. Thirty-one percent say they’re “making a statement about personal freedom,” and 27 percent say they’re “just not concerned about coronavirus.” Fifteen percent say they’re “personally unlikely to suffer serious long-term effects if I contract COVID-19.” These explanations are entirely self-centered.

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Eventually, the chain of transmission ends up killing people like Powell. He was 84 and had a disease whose symptoms and treatment tend to weaken immunity. Such people can’t rely on COVID vaccines, since their immune systems often respond faintly or not at all to inoculation. They need the rest of us, who do get robust immunity from COVID shots, to protect them by getting vaccinated and breaking the chain of transmission before it gets to them. That’s what Prager, West, and tens of millions of other unvaccinated Americans have refused to do.

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Last week, West—a veteran and gun enthusiast—bragged on Twitter that his recovery proved COVID couldn’t “keep an old soldier down.” Powell’s death would cruelly discredit that boast. West also posted video of himself singing to an indoor audience. He added a photo of himself standing next to a paper target he had shot full of holes from 5 yards away. He depicted the photo, jokingly, as an admonition, quoting one of his favorite songs: “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” But you don’t need a gun to kill people at close range. You just need lungs and indifference.

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