by Peter Chow
If a vaccine for Covid-19 is developed, will enough people take it for society to achieve herd immunity?
It is sad that this is even a relevant question. People who are able to take vaccines but refuse to do so are the moral equivalent of drunk drivers.
The anti-vax movement, which aggressively spreads fear and misinformation about vaccines, has become a major, worldwide threat. Anti-vaxxers persist with a series of arguments for which there is no scientific evidence but that generate hesitancy among an increasing number of seemingly educated people who, due to the success of vaccination itself, have forgotten that not so long ago, children were dying from diseases such as diphtheria, polio or measles.
1. “Vaccines contain toxic substances such as aluminium and mercury or aborted fetal tissue”
In a normal day, we breathe, eat or drink 30-50 mg of aluminum, more than 20 times the maximum allowed dose in a vaccine.
Adjuvants are sometimes necessary to boost the immune response and decrease the dose of inactivated virus or bacteria in the vaccine. Aluminum salts are not the most effective adjuvant but have been used as such for more than 80 years and in thousands of millions of doses precisely because of their safety. In a normal day, we breathe, eat or drink 30-50 mg of aluminum, more than 20 times the maximum allowed dose in a vaccine (0.85 mg).
Thimerosal is a preservative that inhibits the growth of potentially lethal bacteria or fungi. It is metabolized into ethyl mercury (which is less toxic and eliminated more rapidly) and not methyl mercury (as anti-vaxxers claim). In 2001, thimerosal was taken out of childhood vaccines while other vaccines, with the exception of the influenza shot, contain only trace amounts. Even then, we are exposed to higher amounts of mercury (69 mcg) when eating one can of tuna than with one dose of influenza vaccine (25 mcg maximum).
Formaldehyde is part of the vaccine manufacturing process and is present at residual quantities in the final product. Our body contains higher doses of circulating formaldehyde at any one time than that contained in any vaccine. In fact, there is more formaldehyde in an apple than in the Hepatitis B, DTaP and polio vaccines together.
Vaccines do not contain cells from aborted fetuses or other human cells.
Some childhood vaccines, including the one against rubella — which is part of the MMR vaccine given to millions of children worldwide for measles, mumps and rubella – are cultured in “WI-38 human diploid lung fibroblasts,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s fact sheet on the vaccine’s ingredients.
Those cells were from a cell line produced from cells originally obtained from an electively aborted fetus. A cell line is a cell multiplied over and over again to produce cells that are of a consistent genetic makeup. The WI-38 cell line is used as a culture to grow live viruses that are used in vaccines.
However, all cells are removed during the vaccine manufacturing process. This means that there are no human cells in the actual vaccines.
2. “Too many vaccines can overload the child’s immune system”
Children are exposed to a greater amount of environmental antigens in one single day than those contained in all the vaccines combined they receive.
From the moment we are born, we are continuously exposed to a huge amount of viruses and bacteria and foreign antigens. Fortunately, our immune system is prepared to recognize and combat an almost unlimited number and diversity of antigens (protein fragments derived from any organism and capable of inducing an immune response). In addition, the bacteria and virus within live vaccines are inactivated.
3. “Natural immunity is better”
For certain pathogens, naturally acquired immunity may last longer than that acquired through vaccination. However, the risk associated to a natural infection is not comparable to the risks associated to any vaccine. For example, measles causes 2 deaths out of 1000 infected individuals in developed countries (in low-resource countries the number can be up to 20 times higher), whereas the MMR vaccine causes one severe adverse reaction in one out of 1 million vaccinated individuals. The benefit of vaccination simply far outweighs the risk.
4. “Vaccines cause autoimmune disorders, asthma, autism and allergies”
Not one single large-scale study has showed that vaccines increase the risk of autoimmune disorders or allergies. Not one single large-scale study has showed that vaccines increase the risk of autoimmune disorders or allergies.
MMR vaccination was thought to have been associated with cases of idiopathic thrombocytopenia, an autoimmune disorder. However, multiple studies have shown that the frequency of such disease in vaccinated children (1 in 30,000) is much lower than that observed in children that contract rubella (1 in 3,000) or measles (1 in 6,000).
Likewise, two large scale studies concluded that there is no evidence for the supposed association between the Hepatitis B vaccine and multiple sclerosis that was reported in France between 1991 and 1997. Such vaccine has been used in more than 500 million people and is considered one of the safest vaccines yet developed.
Neither vaccines nor the components of the vaccines, thimerosal or mercury, are associated with autism: evidence-based meta-analyses have concluded that vaccinations are not associated with the development of autism or autism spectrum disorder.
This idea was proposed by a gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield, who was found to have falsified data for his article and ended up having his medical licence revoked. The original study should not have been published not merely because it was poorly conducted, but also because it was a product of research fraud, falsified data. The British Medical Journal described Wakefield’s work as an “elaborate fraud”. Subsequent investigative reporting revealed that Wakefield had planned to capitalize on the MMR vaccination scare provoked by his paper by forming a corporation that would profit from “litigation-driven testing”.
5. Conspiracy theories are the core of most anti-vax arguments. The most common version holds that the “medical establishment” (whoever that is) are hiding the dangers of vaccines so that they can make money.
This is utter nonsense. All of doctors I know in the infectious disease community are motivated by a wish to cure disease. In any case, doctors make little or no money from administering vaccines. Similarly, pharmaceutical companies regard vaccines as a poor business model. Vaccines require huge development and testing costs and poor income streams. Vaccines are a one-time-use item – far more profitable to sell pharmaceuticals for chronic diseases that patients will have to take for the rest of their lives.
It is easy to treat belief in conspiracy theories lightly, but studies show that concern about conspiracy theories is warranted. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories present a barrier to vaccine uptake, a barrier to achieving herd immunity, which will have significant detrimental consequences for society’s health.
When you search the word “vaccine” on Instagram, the app recommends dozens of anti-vaccine accounts in its top results. Accounts with names such as “Vaccines_revealed,” “Vaccinesuncovered,” “vaccines_kill_”, “vaccinesaregenocide_”, #billgatesisevil, #chemtrails, #coronahoax, #5Gkills, and “say_no_to_bill_gates_vaccine” are front and center.
Canadians are not immune to conspiracy theories:
- A recent survey conducted by the School of Journalism at Carleton University found that nearly half of Canadians (46 per cent) believed at least one of four Covid-19 conspiracy theories addressed in the survey.
- A quarter of Canadians, 26 per cent, believe a discredited conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was engineered as a bioweapon in a Chinese lab and released into the general population.
- 11 per cent of Canadians believe another conspiracy theory, that COVID-19 is not a serious illness but is being spread to cover up harmful health effects associated with exposure to 5G wireless technology.
- 23 per cent believe the hyped and unproven claim promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump that hydroxychloroquine is effective in treating COVID-19. And one-sixth of respondents, 17 per cent believe a myth that regularly rinsing your nose with a saline solution can help protect individuals from infection with the coronavirus.
- Nearly half, 49 per cent, of those who believe the bioweapon conspiracy theory, and 58 per cent of respondents who believe the 5G conspiracy theory, said they can easily distinguish between misinformation and factual information.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is alive and well.
Although you have a right to your own body, your choice to willfully be sick ends where another’s right to be healthy begins. For that reason, people who “opt out” of vaccines should be opted out of society.
Freedom doesn’t mean “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want.” You can’t drive without a seatbelt and you can’t ride a motorcycle without a helmet. When we choose to live in a society, there are certain obligations—both moral and legal—to which we are bound. You cannot inflict harm or infringe on the rights and liberties of those around you.
Your moral and legal obligations to the safety of others can even curtail combinations of your rights. Even though consuming alcohol and driving are both legal activities, they are not legal when performed together. Nearly 11,000 people die every year because people choose to exercise their “rights” inappropriately.
The exact same reasoning applies to vaccination.
There is no moral difference between a drunk driver and a willfully unvaccinated person.
Anti-vaxxers resemble a cult because they have several of the key features of cults.
Members of the cult have special insights that outsiders cannot comprehend. With anti-vaxxers, this means they are completely convinced that they know that vaccines cause harm, despite mountains of scientific evidence to the contrary.
The group and its leaders are the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, and no other process of discovery is credible. The anti-vax movement has had several prominent leaders, whose followers flock to their speeches and events.
These include Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced former doctor who lost his medical license after it was revealed that he had committed fraud. His followers, though, either don’t know or ignore his fraudulent past, and regard him as a hero. He makes a living from his books, a movie, and speaking fees, all based on spreading fear about vaccines.
An even more prominent anti-vax leader is Robert Kennedy, Jr., who also sells books and gives speeches proclaiming the harms of vaccines. He is the Kennedy clan’s version of Eric Trump. Thanks to his famous name, and despite the fact that he has no medical or scientific training, some people believe him.
Misinformation abounds. The internet, both a blessing and a curse, has allowed devilish lies, propaganda and a discredited fraud masquerading as science to infect the minds of millions of people.
Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine that can inoculate someone against a counterfactual, unscientific mindset.
Vaccines can prevent dozens of harmful diseases. Those who refuse, and recklessly endanger others, should be put in quarantine.
There is a solution that maintains everybody’s freedom: Anti-vaxxers can opt out of society.
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Ethan Siegel is a theoretical astrophysicist and author of Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive.