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An Open Letter to Your Family "Covidiot" - Part 2: Vaccines

During the summer of this pandemic, I received an email from an educated family friend that had quite a bit of information I disagreed with. I wrote a letter back as a response. Their original letter provided no sources for the information it stated, and I have tried to remedy that in my response by linking all the sources throughout this article.

This is the second part of my response, with updated information about vaccines and the myth's around them. I have tried to stay in the same format with each section titled with the misleading claim, and my refutation and evidence below that.

“What is a vaccine, anyway, and how do they work?”

Did you know that the first “vaccines” were invented by intentionally giving people a disease that was much less serious but provided some resistance to the related, but deadlier disease? This is often first attributed to Edward Jenner’s use of Cowpox to provide immunity to Smallpox in 1796 and later an “inactivated virus” by Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine in 1885. In the early 1900s, there was a flurry of vaccine development against diseases such as Diphtheria, Typhoid, Tetanus, Plague, and others. The most famous of these is probably the Polio vaccine developed by Jonah Salk in 1955. Through the invention and distribution of vaccines, we have managed to eliminate or trivialize some of the most dangerous human contagions from the earth. So, why are people so often confused or opposed to vaccines? It is often a case of not understanding how they function or believing misinformation spread by others. In this article, I will only briefly touch upon how they work and spend more time attempting to warn you, the reader, of some of the more common misconceptions spread by those who don’t know any better.

For the most part, there are two things that drive disease on our planet: bacteria and viruses. Bacteria are tiny living organisms that are just about everywhere. The typical human lives in harmony with a great many types of bacteria, so much so that the typical human bodyweight consists of between 0.3% and 3% in bacteria. If you weigh 150 pounds, somewhere between half a pound and 4.5 pounds of you is actually bacteria! Most of these bacteria are harmless or beneficial, but some types of bacteria can make us sick. The medicines that humans have created to treat harmful bacterial infections are called “Antibiotics.” These are substances that are generally safe for humans, but toxic to the types of bacteria that they are targeting. Antibiotics will do absolutely nothing against a virus, just as a vaccine is useless against bacterial infection.

The second main driver of disease, viruses, are tiny DNA and RNA based self-replication machines. They cannot really be called a “living” thing because they cannot reproduce themselves without other organisms. A virus is a small chunk of very specific RNA or DNA code that is wrapped up in several protective proteins that function to invade our cells and use the machinery inside our bodies to replicate and spread to other organisms. Our bodies have a defense system in place against viruses called the Immune System. When our immune system is exposed to a virus (i.e. we get sick from it) it spends time creating and building “Antibodies” that are very specifically shaped proteins that are able to target that specific virus. Once the virus is targeted by antibodies, our defensive cells can find and kill it before it can infect and replicate inside of us. Once our immune system “knows” a virus, it usually provides immunity (or at least long-term resistance) to that virus.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, No Copyright

A vaccine is any type of substance to which we purposely expose our bodies, in order for our immune systems to build antibodies against the virus on which we are focused. This way, we can build our antibody library without actually getting sick and dying. The first vaccines mostly used a “live” virus that had been damaged by heat enough that it couldn’t replicate, but still maintained enough of its “shape” to trigger antibody creation. Since then we have learned a lot more about biology and there are a huge number of methods to trick our bodies into creating antibodies for a virus, without being exposed to that virus.

“Vaccines are not safe”

Overall, most vaccines are incredibly safe, have been tested on studied on countless thousands of people, and have very minimal side effects. As with any type of medication in a large and varied population, there will be some side effects in some people. However, for vaccines, what are considered side effects tend toward redness, swelling, and joint pain, with occasional mild fever or irritation. Most of these are only mildly irritating and come about because many of the symptoms that we associate with illness (fever, headache, swelling) are often caused by our immune systems fighting the infection. Since vaccines are used to trick our immune systems into fighting a non-virus, sometimes these effects can occur.

Woman receiving a vaccine, Public Domain Image

There are a very few “live virus” vaccines, such as the Yellow Fever vaccine, that use a weakened form of the actual virus to induce antibody production. These can, in extremely rare cases, cause the disease in people who take it. Generally, this is limited to very serious diseases where the reduction of spread is considered important enough to endure a 1 in a 100,000 chance of getting the disease.

More serious side effects are mostly rare-to-nonexistent for the vast majority of vaccines. The smallpox vaccine is considered to have some of the worst potential side effects and yet has been given to many military personnel. The Smallpox vaccine can have several rare, yet nasty, side effects. This is considered one of the most dangerous vaccines that exist, but still useful since smallpox has a 30-40% mortality rate and this vaccine has essentially eliminated it from the world.

One of the most common reasons people cite today for being against vaccines is a misconception that they can cause autism, and yet there has never been a valid link between vaccines and autism. The “evidence” for a link between vaccines and autism came from a study published in 1995 in The Lancet. And later followed up by the same group with another paper in 1998. Over the following years, most of the authors retracted their original interpretation of the paper, and in 2010 The Lancet formally retracted the paper itself. One of the authors was banned from practicing medicine in Britain and was found to have falsified information in the paper. Basically, the entire thing was a mess. Since then, there have been many studies that have, again and again, showed that there is no link between vaccines and autism, or between preservatives in vaccines and autism.

“No one has ever developed a vaccine for a coronavirus before.”

No one has ever cared enough to fund the research into creating a vaccine for the common cold, because there are too many viruses that cause it, and the symptoms are very mild. During the initial outbreaks of SARS and MERS, there was a rush to start creating vaccines. These diseases, which are very, very deadly, turned out to be much less transmissible than we originally feared, As soon as the outbreak was found to be less contagious, and they didn’t turn into a worldwide problem, funding was cut from these efforts and the research turned into a trickle. Several of these earlier candidates have been used as initial steps for current Covid-19 vaccines. Funding (and defunding) science is intensely competitive and leads to these kinds of difficulties. Without the money to do the research, the research doesn’t get done. When SARS and MERS failed to turn into global issues, very few could obtain funding to work on them (which may have given us a working vaccine that could be adjusted in a shorter amount of time to affect Covid-19, had it existed).

“But Bill gates wants to put microchips in all of us”

Really? Seriously? Ok, so… not only has this been thoroughly debunked, but nobody who matters wants to surreptitiously put microchips inside of you. Don’t believe me? Ok, let me list some reasons why.

The “Microchips” that are being talked about here are passive RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips. These generally can hold between 2 and 8 kb of data, which really isn’t much information. Passive RFID chips can be scanned by a reader from generally between 0 and 12 meters. The higher ranges, however, are due to larger RFID chips that would not be implantable. Human implantable passive RFID chips have a scan range of about 10 centimeters. An active RFID chip could be read from a much greater range but requires a battery, which makes it impossible to implant. People already do this to themselves in order to be able to control electronics by proximity or to tag a pet with contact information.

What really makes this a silly argument is that everyone who has a credit card or a cell phone is already carrying around RFID chips that hold a lot more personally-identifying information and can be scanned from much farther away. There is a not-insignificant chance that you used your fingerprint to unlock a device that knows your exact location, just to read this article. Trying to implant people who get vaccinated with some kind of chip would be redundant, expensive, and pointless.

If you really want to get worried about privacy, you should be much more worried about facial recognition software, which is making great progress and being used, without your knowledge or consent, to track you wherever you go. It is already in use to identify protesters, used by Singapore as National Identity proof, to screen for known stalkers, and many other uses.

I believe this whole conspiracy started because in 2004 the FDA approved an implantable RFID chip that would hold a unique 16 digit number that could be tied to a person’s medical records. This idea was not widely accepted, but since then there have been movements to attempt to attach a person’s medical history and basic data to implanted chips in order to reduce hospital mistakes and help EMTs with identifying a patient’s blood type or known allergies. While this could be useful for the patients and the hospitals, it is not being forced on anyone, nor would be a useful way to track people when they all carry cell phones that do that tracking already.

“I’m not getting the vaccine because I don’t believe in them, but if YOU want to, go ahead.”

The fact that fully half of polled Americans have already decided that they would not get a covid-19 vaccine is a big problem. In fact, it is one of the main reasons why various health organizations are warning that a working vaccine alone will not solve this pandemic (immediately). Even with a working vaccine and herd immunity, this disease will pop up from time to time, but what we are working toward is reducing the severity of symptoms and bringing its R0 value down below one. R0 is pronounced “R-naught”, and it is the term for the average number of people that each case transmits to. If every person that catches a disease passes it to an average of 2 other people, the R0 is 2. If a disease has an R0 greater than 1, then cases will continue to rise exponentially. If the R0 is below 1 then the cases will gradually fizzle out.

Herd immunity is the concept that if enough people in a group are immune to a contagion, then the members of that group who are not immune are also protected. Even if a case or two pop up, it won’t be able to spread enough to raise the R0 above 1. Here is a really excellent visualization of how herd immunity works. In the case of Covid-19, experts have estimated that we would need about 70% of the population to be immune in order to achieve herd immunity. By far the safest way to achieve herd immunity is through mass vaccinations. By vaccinating roughly 70% of the population against Covid-19, we can effectively achieve herd immunity and stop the pandemic. Of course, if we can vaccinate more than 70% of the population, then continuing outbreaks that arise will be less severe and spread to fewer people. Conversely, if we vaccinate fewer than 70% of the population, then it will slow, but not stop the pandemic.

It is technically possible to achieve herd immunity without a vaccine by allowing the disease to ravage the population. In America, it would require roughly 198 million cases of Covid-19, which would translate to between 990,000 and 4,356,000 deaths in the USA alone. I don’t know about you, but I prefer the solution that doesn’t result in literally millions of people dying needlessly.

Choosing not to get vaccinated, when you have no valid medical reason, does not mean that “only you” forgo the protection and others can choose to protect themselves. Choosing not to get vaccinated directly leads to more deaths among other people. It may sound like hyperbole, but if you choose not to get vaccinated against Covid-19, you are literally, although not legally, a murderer. Get vaccinated for yourself, but more importantly, get vaccinated for those around you and to stop this pandemic.

“I don’t trust the Trump administration rushing these vaccines through the safety trials.”

Ya, I don’t trust the Trump administration either, but there are two main things stopping this issue from worrying me.

First, the people developing these vaccines may work for companies, but they are scientists first and foremost. These are the people who know exactly what they are doing and are looking to create the safest and most effective vaccine possible. They are ready and willing to accept peer review and criticism of their techniques and the safety trials they are carrying out. These people really want to make the best vaccine possible.

Second, these scientists (who may have more altruistic motives) work for corporations, which care about profit and continuing their existence above all else. According to the WHO, there are over 100 Covid-19 vaccines in development around the world. While many companies are racing to be the first vaccine to be released, it would do them more harm than good to release anything but the safest and most effective vaccine that there is. After all, there are another 99+ similar products right behind them that will be effective if yours is not.

Can you imagine the fallout for a large corporation that released a dangerous or ineffective vaccine for Covid-19? A month later there would be five better, safer, and more effective products from other companies. This situation would not just be a danger to the corporation’s profits, but an existential threat to their continued existence.

I believe in the altruism and expertise of the teams of scientists creating these vaccines, and I believe in the vested self-interest of the pharmaceutical companies funding them. The race to be first is meaningless if the vaccine is not safe and effective. The other companies are not going to stop their research just because a single vaccine was released before them. Within the next year, the vast majority of these vaccines under development will be released and there will be many options among Covid-19 vaccines, and no one is going to be buying the ones that raced to finish first without being safe.

What have we learned?

Vaccines are one of the only useful tools we are able to employ in the fight against virus-borne disease, and we cannot create vaccines until we know what virus we are targeting. It takes a certain amount of time to build a new vaccine, but the current Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented attention and funding to the scientists creating them and allowed a rush of progress that brings to mind the space race of the 1960s. Things that were previously thought to be nearly impossible, have been accomplished in record times.

These vaccines will mostly be safe and effective, and they will be vital for the world to be able to return to a non-pandemic state. It is each of our responsibility to humanity to focus attention on the vaccines and those creating them, scrutinize what has been done, listen to the actual experts, and take them when they become available to us.


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