It was the shock of a loud whistle that almost made Gregory Poland turn off the road as he drove home after getting his second Covid-19 vaccine.
“It scared me,” Poland said, there are 66 years. “I thought it was a dog whistle going right next to me.”
It was not a dog whistle; it was a piercing sound that his brain conjured up for an unknown reason. Poland suspects that it may have been a side effect of the vaccine.
That was a year ago. The noise, he said, has been relentless ever since.
For the record, neither Poland nor the medical community as a whole can prove that the mRNA Covid vaccine he received had anything to do with his sudden onset tinnitus, a condition often described as a ringing, buzzing or hissing sound in one or both ears. It can be constant or intermittent.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and vaccine manufacturers have investigated anecdotal reports of tinnitus through programs such as the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System or VAERS after Covid vaccination, but have found no evidence of cause and effect.
And Poland’s narrative might not weigh much if he was not Dr. Gregory Poland – a globally respected physician who has dedicated his career to vaccine studies and development as founder and CEO of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minnesota.
What’s more, Poland is a paid scientific advisor to Johnson & Johnson / Janssen Global Services and acts as a consultant in vaccine development for Moderna as well as other pharmaceutical companies.
Given Poland’s interests and the uncertainty about a true link between the vaccine and tinnitus – not to mention a strong anti-vaccine movement – why would he disclose his condition and suspect that a vaccine might be involved?
“As a doctor who has taken an oath to do no harm first, I think of these things,” Poland said. His daily focus, he said, is to help patients work through the potential risks and benefits of any treatment, including vaccines.
“I refuse to be anything less than transparent,” he said. “I refuse to choose the information that needs to be presented to people in order to make good decisions.”
What does science say?
There is no known cause for tinnitus, although it is often associated with “acoustic trauma”, such as what is experienced by active military personnel.
There is some evidence that Covid-19 in itself can aggravate the condition in people who have previously suffered from ringing in the ears.
When it comes to potential auditory side effects of vaccination, research is sparse.
A study published last month in the medical journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, analyzed reports of hearing problems following Covid-19 vaccines. The reports had been submitted to VAERS.
Such reports raise the issue of unexpected problems after any vaccine. Researchers are then tasked with reviewing the reports and looking for patterns of unusual side effects.
The JAMA study from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine analyzed 555 VAERS reports of hearing loss possibly associated with any of the three Covid vaccines in use in the United States between mid-December 2020 and mid-December. July 2021.
However, the analysis showed that hearing loss or other auditory problems were not more prevalent after vaccination than would be expected in the general population. Up to 10 percent of the U.S. population is estimated to have experienced tinnitus for whatever reason.
In fact, having a Covid infection has been linked to hearing loss or severe, even unbearable, tinnitus.
The most notable example was Texas Roadhouse the restaurant chain’s managing director, Kent Taylor. The 65-year-old entrepreneur died of suicide a year ago, his family said, after Covid’s illness, including relentless tinnitus.
Another examination, from Israel, also published last month in the same JAMA publication, found a slight increase in hearing problems after administration of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. Such reports were generally minimal.
In a statement to NBC News, Pfizer said the company takes reported adverse events “very seriously.”
“Tinnitus cases have been reviewed and no causal link to the Covid-19 vaccine has been identified,” the statement said.
A statement from Johnson & Johnson said tinnitus was identified as an adverse event in its Phase 3 clinical trials with the Covid-19 vaccine, but also maintained that it was impossible to “establish a causal relationship to vaccine exposure.”
Moderna did not respond to further requests for comment.
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The challenge, Poland said, is “to try to distinguish between what is real and what is random.” That is, are such hearing problems so common that they would be expected regardless of vaccination?
The CDC also recognized reports of tinnitus following Covid-19 vaccinations, specifically the pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines.
However, a statement from the agency said that “at present, safety data are not sufficient to conclude that there is a causal link between vaccination and tinnitus.”
On Stanford Medicine Molecular Neurotology Laboratory in California, Director Dr. Konstantina Stankovic, an otolaryngologist head and neck surgeon, preliminary research to determine the potential effects of both Covid and its vaccines on auditory function.
While the scientific process should ultimately determine any true links between the virus, vaccines and potential hearing problems, Stankovic said tinnitus may be a recognized side effect of the vaccine.
“My email is being bombarded by people from all over the world who really feel like they do not have a voice,” she said. “They feel they are being fired, that people are not taking them seriously, and yet they tell me in very touching ways how they can bind it to the vaccine.”
Stankovic is quick to acknowledge that personal stories do not prove causality.
“You can’t make big demands based on individual patients,” she said. “But they should not be ignored.”
Poland’s experience with tinnitus has been cross-border traumatic. He has previously had seizures with the ring to his ears, but nothing so lasting or so intense.
“I was sitting one night looking at the stars, and I got tears in my eyes when the thought came to me out of the blue: I may never hear silence again,” he said. He wakes up in the middle of the night, unable to ignore the roaring whistle in his ears.
In addition to medicine, Poland is also a minister. He even finds the sound of church music intolerable.
Still, he got his booster and would “not hesitate a millisecond to recommend the vaccine.”
“No one should be afraid of getting a vaccine because of the possibility of some kind of auditory side effect,” Poland said, referring to the well-established risks of complications from Covid.
“A wise person looks at the balance between risks and benefits and says, ‘well, there are some known risks to the vaccine, but they are far lower than the risk of getting the disease,'” he said.