UC-Irvine fires Catholic ethicist who filed 'natural immunity' challenge to COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Dr. Aaron Kheriaty Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a Catholic psychiatrist and ethicist, was fired from his post at the University of Califorinia, Irvine, medical school for refusing to be vaccinated. | Courtesy of Aaron Kheriaty

A Catholic psychiatrist and medical ethicist who is suing the University of California for denying him a natural immunity exemption from its COVID-19 vaccination mandate has been fired for refusing to be vaccinated.

Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a psychiatry professor and director of the medical ethics program at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine, reported the news on his blog Dec. 17.

“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. 

“Everyone at the University seemed to be a fan of my work until suddenly they were not. Once I challenged one of their policies I immediately became a 'threat to the health and safety of the community,'” he continued. “No amount of empirical evidence about natural immunity or vaccine safety and efficacy mattered at all. The University’s leadership was not interested in scientific debate or ethical deliberation.”

A university spokesman told CNA that the school does not comment on personnel matterrs.

The university’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate requires all students, faculty, and staff to be vaccinated. 

Kheriaty sought a medical exemption, arguing that since he had a bout with COVID-19 over the summer he has natural immunity from the virus and poses no health threat to anyone on campus.

When the university refused to grant him an exemption, he filed a federal lawsuit Aug. 18 against the University of California regents and its president, seeking to have the mandate struck down as an equal protection violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. 

The university initially placed Kheriaty on a paid leave in October and barred him from interacting with patients or students in person until he complied with the mandate. He said in his blog post that he received official notice of his firing on Dec. 16. He plans to go forward with his lawsuit.

“I think that the conviction that I need to follow my conscience, and not ignore it, that comes from my Catholic faith,” Kheriaty told CNA in 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.”

Arguing with science, not religion

Kheriaty is a senior fellow at the Zephyr Institute, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, chief of medical ethics at The Unity Project, and chief of psychiatry and ethics at Doc1 Health

Although he professes deep religious convictions, Kheriaty told CNA he didn’t apply for a religious exemption because he said he has a “perfectly legitimate medical reason for declining the vaccine,” namely, “natural immunity.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), natural immunity refers to the body’s ability to neutralize or destroy disease-carrying organisms that is “acquired from exposure to the disease organism through infection with the actual disease.”

Kheriaty’s lawsuit places him in the center of a growing legal, scientific, and political debate on the natural protections provided by prior exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.

Some studies suggest that prior exposure provides robust and lasting immunity, as is often seen with exposure to other infectious diseases, and some countries have granted exemptions from vaccine mandates to those who can demonstrate they have recovered from COVID-19.

“Natural immunity is durable,” Marty Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Carey Business School, wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “It’s time to stop the fear mongering and level with the public about the incredible capabilities of both modern medical research and the human body’s immune system.”

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But other public health authorities, including the CDC, have pushed back on the claim that natural immunity is at least as good as, if not superior to, vaccination.

“You should get a COVID-19 vaccine even if you already had COVID-19,” the CDC states on its website

“Getting sick with COVID-19 offers some protection from future illness with COVID-19, sometimes called ‘natural immunity.’ The level of protection people get from having COVID-19 may vary depending on how mild or severe their illness was, the time since their infection, and their age,” the CDC advisory states. “No currently available test can reliably determine if a person is protected from infection.”

Kheriaty came down with COVID-19 in July and experienced many of the common symptoms associated with the disease, including a cough and a loss of taste and smell, according to his complaint. As a result, he considers himself to be immune from contracting or spreading the virus.

According to his complaint, “The hunt for re-infections has been a nationwide effort and out of the estimated 120.2 million individuals in the United States who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 as of May 2021, there is not a single documented case of an individual being re-infected with the virus and transmitting it to another person.”

“I'm actually the safest person to be around on campus as someone who's recovered from COVID-19, whereas the vaccines, one of which started out at 67% efficacy and all of which have declined, they start declining at about four months,” Kheriaty told CNA. 

Kheriaty's lawsuit cites a recent Israeli study that compared natural immunity to vaccinated immunity. The study concluded that “natural immunity confers longer lasting and stronger protection against infection, symptomatic disease and hospitalization caused by the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, compared to the [Pfizer] two-dose vaccine-induced immunity.”

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Forced vaccination on those with natural immunity, Kheriaty says, introduces unnecessary risks without commensurate benefits.

“I'm refusing to take the vaccine because I don't need it, it’s not going to help me, it's not going to help anyone else" if he were vaccinated, he said, "and there are risks associated with the vaccine, however small, and it only makes sense to assume those risks if there's potential benefit for me.”

Kheriaty also said that there are no deaths from reinfection cases, adding that hospitalizations from reinfection “are about as close to zero as you can get in medicine.”

“Natural immunity is very effective, it's not declining over time, and we have evidence that it will likely be durable for many years, perhaps indefinitely,” he said. 

Kheriaty said that the efficacy of the three available COVID-19 vaccines is declining over time, “especially against re-infection,” though he acknowledged that they are still helpful in reducing symptoms and reducing hospitalization.

Kheriaty said the vaccines do not prevent the vaccinated from transmitting the virus, while natural immunity “gives you what's called sterilizing immunity, meaning not only do I not get reinfected, but I don’t get an asymptomatic infection or a low level infection that I then can transmit to other people.”

A risky ‘hypothesis’?

In his complaint, Kheriaty contends that the university’s mandate and a parallel vaccination mandate for healthcare workers in California constitute an equal protection violation of the U.S. Constitution because they treat vaccinated and natural immune persons differently.

“UCI has told Plaintiff that he cannot return to his teaching position unless he receives a COVID-19 vaccine. Thus, UC is treating him differently by refusing to re-admit him to campus when other individuals who are considered immune to the virus are being admitted back simply because their immunity was created by a vaccine,” his complaint states.

“It is unscientific and lacks a rational basis, let alone a compelling reason, to allow vaccinated individuals to attend or work at UC in person when their immunity is less effective at preventing infection and spread of COVID-19 than those that have had COVID-19 while not allowing the naturally immune,” the complaint continues.

The University of California disagrees. In its legal filing responding to Kheriaty’s complaint, it calls his assertion that a prior bout with COVID-19 imparts superior protection from the virus than vaccination an “unproven hypothesis.”

The same Israeli study Kheriaty cites in his lawsuit states that “the degree and duration to which previous infection with SARS-CoV-2 affords protection against repeated infection also remains unclear.”

“​​UC and the public’s interest in maintaining the health and well-being of the campus community cannot be overstated. If Dr. Kheriaty’s theory that infection-induced immunity is robust and provides lifelong stable protection for every person who has recovered from COVID-19 is incorrect — it could put thousands of students, faculty and staff, not to mention vulnerable patients seeking treatment in UC medical centers, at higher risk of COVID-19 infection,” the university’s court filing states.

The university says in its response that its mandate is a reasonable measure given the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.

“Vaccination remains the safest and most effective way for UC to protect its community,” the university’s response states.

‘God can open other doors’

Kheriaty told CNA the Medical Board of California (MBC) sent an “extremely chilling” letter to the state’s physicians in August that threatened disciplinary action if a physician issued an inappropriate mask or COVID-19 exemption.  

The MBC wrote in August: “The Medical Board of California (Board) would like to inform licensees and the public that a physician who grants a mask or other exemption without conducting an appropriate prior exam and without a finding of a legitimate medical reason supporting such an exemption within the standard of care may be subjecting their license to disciplinary action.”

The MCB set up a “complaint review process” in which it encourages the public to file a complaint against a physician “if they feel that a physician is granting mask exemptions inappropriately.”

Kheriaty says that California physicians interpreted the MBC’s message to mean, “I'm not going to write any medical exemptions for vaccines.”

“It's pretty much impossible to get a medical exemption for a vaccine, even if you have an appropriate medical reason,” he said.

Kheriaty told CNA that he has a patient who went to their rheumatologist and said the rheumatologist advised them to forgo receiving the COVID-19 vaccine because of the patient’s auto-immune condition. 

The rheumatologist also considered other factors, including the patient's young age, and decided that the vaccine is likely to do more harm than good for them, Kheriaty told CNA.

After the patient asked the rheumatologist for a medical exemption, the physician declined, citing fear of disciplinary action by the medical board, Kheriaty said. 

Kheriaty also said he had non-religious students consult him about their conscience objections to vaccination because they did not qualify for religious exemption and did not want to lie about their non-religious beliefs.

“They had what I considered to be perfectly legitimate reasons to decline the vaccine,” he said. “They have no recourse.”

“These are people who can't come back to school, who are losing scholarships, faculty and staff who are losing their jobs,” he added.

As a teacher of medical ethics, Kheriaty thought the denial of conscience exemptions ran contrary to his own curriculum for medical students. 

Kheriaty said if he did not stand up against the mandate, he could not imagine himself standing in front of his medical ethics students, while teaching about integrity, trustworthiness, and moral courage.

“I don't think I would have woken up in the morning with a clear conscience,” he said. 

Kheriaty is married and has five children, with the oldest in college, two in high school, and two in grade school. He told CNA he plans to go into private practice.

For those who are in a similar situation with their jobs, Kheriaty says it's important to explore the option of exemptions, understand the criteria, and seek legal counsel. He then says that trust in God and reliance on prayer is necessary to follow one’s conscience and discern God’s will.

“In his Providence, he will take care of you,” he said. “So some doors may close, but God can open other doors for you. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and all the rest will be added unto you.’”

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