May 07 2021

COVID Vaccines Are Safe and Effective

We are at a critical point in this pandemic. Worldwide the pandemic is actually more active now than ever. There have been over 156 million cases, and the world is seeing almost 800k new cases a day. The recent peak is mainly due to India, but infections continue throughout the world. The high number of cases also increases the risk of new variants emerging. India also shows us how quickly medical resources can be overwhelmed with catastrophic results. They ran out of oxygen – which is critical to keeping severe COVID patients alive.

Yet, with each wave there was the prevailing sense that this was the worst we’ll get, and now we are rounding the corner. So far, this has been wrong every time. Of course this pandemic must end eventually, the question has always been how much death, morbidity, and economic damage would it cause in the meantime. The primary reason for the next worse wave of the pandemic has largely been that people eased off on pandemic protocols. They stopped wearing masks and social distancing and started gathering in large groups. And each time the virus made us pay for it.

But now, despite being in the middle of the biggest wave so far, the situation is changing, because now we have multiple safe and effective vaccines. In the US there are two mRNA vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, in addition to the J&J vaccine. Other than a minor hiccup with extremely rare blood clots, these vaccines have a great safety profile. In states with high vaccine uptake the virus is getting under control, and restrictions are starting to be safely lifted. Life is partly getting back to normal – thanks entirely to the vaccines.

But we are facing two problem – entirely of our own making. The first is that we are in a race against time. We have to vaccinate enough of the world to achieve herd immunity before new variants emerge that are resistant to the vaccines. Also, we don’t know how long immunity from the vaccines last, but it may be something around a year. So when we get to a year out from the first vaccines given, we need to do it all over again with booster shots. Perhaps even more importantly, we are running up against vaccine hesitancy, which may ultimately prevent us from getting to herd immunity. That would be a tragedy.

Herd immunity (some are trying to substitute the term community immunity, but it’s hard to change word usage by fiat) occurs when enough people are resistant to an infection that it cannot sustainably spread through the population. Outbreaks remain localized. We are not sure what number is needed to achieve that for COVID, but it is probably between 80-90%. Right now 45% of the population has had at least one shot, about 30% are fully vaccinated. We are doing well, but we have a long way to go. There is a warning signal, those, that demand for vaccines is waning. We are running into the vaccine hesitant population. In addition there is a hard-core anti-vax population. They may be enough to prevent us from ever achieving herd immunity – they will be responsible for continued death and economic damage.

In one recent study, if we can get to herd immunity by summer we can prevent millions of cases in the US alone. In fact, each 10% we increase vaccine coverage along the way will prevent millions of cases.

Meanwhile, there is a dedicated band of anti-vaxxers actively spreading lies and misinformation about the COVID vaccines to the public. It’s as if they are trying to kill as many people as possible. Much of this information is coming from just 12 people – the usual anti-vax suspects, like Mercola and RFK Jr. It shows how much power a lone crank can now have given the amplification of social media. Their claims are all nonsense, but they have to be repeatedly debunked.

David Gorski has been primarily taking on this task at SBM – you can find his recent posts on COVID anti-vaxxers here. Mainstream medical outlets have also been trying to put out the flames, such as the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins. To quickly summarize:

  • mRNA vaccines do not rewrite your DNA. They don’t even get into the nucleus of the cell.
  • They do not permanently create viral protein. The mRNA only lasts 10-14 days.
  • They do not shed spike proteins that can affect the unvaccinated
  • They do not cause spontaneous abortion or infertility
  • The science was not rushed – only the regulatory process was streamlined so that multiple steps could be taken simultaneously.
  • mRNA technology is not new, it has been around for decades. These are just the first mRNA vaccines.

There is an argument to be made that the vaccine producers have a legitimate libel case against anti-vaxxers spreading proven lies. But we shouldn’t have to rely on such a legal remedy. I am a strong defender of freedom of speech, but that does not mean you can give medical advice without a license, that you can knowing defraud the public, or that you can libel individuals or corporations. Social media companies, which are private, also are under no obligation to amplify vaccine misinformation.

Perhaps we need new laws. When law enforcement found it difficult to act against organized crime because they would skate away from each individual infraction, they created anti-racketeering laws. A pattern of criminal activity can rise to the level of organized crime, and racketeering laws kick in. Perhaps we need something similar – when lies and fraud amount to a gaslighting campaign to defraud the public on a massive scale. The burden of proof and threshold would have to be high, but it seems the dirty dozen anti-vaxxers are there. At the very least the anti-vax movement, causing demonstrable harm in the middle of a pandemic, is a serious test of the limits of free speech in the age of social media.

No responses yet