(Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

A Virginia House committee voted down three bills on Tuesday that would have limited the state’s ability to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available.

A key focus of the failed legislation was a current law allowing the state’s health commissioner to require immediate immunization during a public health emergency, regardless of religious objections. The little-used code section made headlines earlier this week after Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said he had plans to mandate any future coronavirus vaccine  — a statement that was quickly walked back by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Bills from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, and Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, would have amended the code to allow for religious exemptions to vaccinations even during an epidemic. Cole’s was specifically tailored to the commissioner’s mandate powers, while LaRock’s would have also superseded the state Board of Health’s ability to mandate student vaccinations during an epidemic.

LaRock filed an additional bill that would have prohibited the state from requiring vaccinations developed without preclinical animal testing or derived from human fetal tissue. 

At least five potential COVID-19 vaccines use cells procured from elective abortions, which are also used in immunizations against chickenpox, hepatitis A, and other diseases. LaRock’s bill also would have prohibited the state from adding scheduled vaccines that modified human RNA or DNA — an apparent response to several false rumors about potential COVID-19 vaccines that have been shared online. 

Some vaccine candidates work by injecting a small segment of the virus’ genetic code to trigger an immune response. There is no vaccination that can modify a patient’s genetic information.

The latter bill failed 13-8 on a party-line vote, with Democratic legislators heavily criticizing sponsors for spreading doubts over the safety of vaccines. “It is irresponsible of us to be hijacking this very important policy conversation to undermine what we know is good science that has saved hundreds of millions of lives over the course of many decades,” said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who tested positive for coronavirus in late July. “It is clear that immunizations save lives and we need to be doing everything we can to protect people.”

Several legislators — and state health officials — also spoke against the first two bills, arguing that allowing religious exemptions during a public health emergency would undermine efforts to protect all Virginians. State epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake said that more contagious diseases require a greater percentage of the population to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, which makes it harder for the disease to travel and spread from person to person.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, said religious objections shouldn’t apply with a potentially deadly disease.

“You don’t have the religious right to kill somebody else,” he added. “If someone drinks and drives, they’re a threat to themselves. They’re also a threat to the community. That’s why we put them in jail.” 

But other Democratic legislators, including Rasoul, said there were legitimate concerns with a law that allows an appointed public official to broadly mandate vaccines during a time of emergency. LaRock’s bill failed on another 13-8 vote, but Rasoul and Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, joined Republican legislators in voting against a motion to kill Cole’s more narrowly tailored bill.

“I think limiting the scope of the chief public health official undermines the tenets of good public health policy, which is charged with the wellbeing of the overarching community,” said Adams, a licensed nurse practitioner. “But I do think, unfortunately, the commissioner made a misstep that has caused a lot of controversy and politicized a very important issue.”

State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver speaks at a press conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The group Virginia Freedom Keepers, which describes itself as a nonpartisan collective of residents against forced medical mandates, launched a petition for Cole’s bill after Oliver’s statement last week. Advocacy leader Marsha Lessard, who spoke during Tuesday’s hearing, said the group collected thousands of signatures.

Vaccines were the subject of another controversy during the 2020 General Assembly session when legislators passed a bill to update the state’s list of required immunizations against outspoken opposition from multiple Republican lawmakers and a contingent of anti-vaccine parents. 

But Adams also said it was doubtful that a vetted and proven COVID-19 vaccine would be available before the 2021 General Assembly session, when legislators would have more time to consider and possibly amend the current state code.

“I just don’t see the need right now for a substantive conversation around limiting our chief public health official’s responsibility,” she added.