the Public Discourse piece on COVID vaccinations went up this week
I would like to think a careful discussion is possible on the right—and indeed in the country as a whole—about this. Now that the Omicron surge seems mostly behind us, both in terms of the spike in infections and in deaths, and though there are other likely aspects of this surge that are still to come (see the parenthetical remark at the end), some of the emotion will perhaps now dissipate and make more reasonable conversation possible. That is hopeful me, in any event, after I’ve slept well and had coffee and a croissant and am looking forward to some pleasant task.
When I feel pessimistic, though, I think what will happen instead is that those with an entrenched position on this, on the left and the right, will simply hunker down, forget about the facts of the impact of the virus that are inconvenient to their pre-conceived beliefs, and we will go back to everyday life once the pandemic has become endemic no better prepared to have a calm, evidence-based, mutually respectful cultural deliberation and action strategy when the inevitable next viral or other microbial threat appears than we are now.
As dreadful as the death toll has been (now more than 900,000 in the US), the cost to the possibility of future national conversations about policy in the face of something like this, or worse, has been perhaps at least as bad. That sounds like an exaggeration. It isn’t. When a more serious biological threat hits—another virus, a highly infectious and deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria—we are going to be in big trouble, and we are going to lose many more lives, if we don’t find a way to heal the cultural rifts that have been only too evident over the past two years.
The situation we are in is this: our medical institutions and technologies have performed marvelously by any objective analysis, handling oceans of patients without collapsing and inventing and dispensing effective vaccines that undoubtedly saved many, many lives, and yet trust in those institutions and technologies is perhaps lower than it has ever been.
Blame accrues to multiple parties here. Official purveyors of information have sometimes been wrong, and sometimes seriously so, and they have doubled down instead of admitting it, and they have sometimes wielded a heavy hand in administration and treated the public callously. Ideologues have cynically used the pandemic on all sides to try to further their agendas, without the slightest bit of human concern for fellow citizens at risk, suffering, and dying. Parts of the public have reacted to the imperfect reaction to the pandemic from above by eagerly listening to cranks and fools who repeat to them the things they desperately want to believe true and failing to do the critical work that the citizenry in a functioning democracy has to do if the cancerous twins of anarchy and despotism are to be avoided.
At the bottom of the mountain of problems is the thing that ultimately makes possible the subsidiary problems of the self-congratulatory and insufficiently self-critical elites and the cynical purveyors of misinformation and outright falsehoods: the pressing need to better educate and inform Americans on the biology and the medical science involved in such affairs. It has become only too apparent that many Americans, far too many, are unprepared or unwilling (or both) to do the work necessary to accurately inform themselves about public health matters of great concern like the COVID pandemic.
According to some recent survey data, about 40% of Americans believe the government is deliberately exaggerating COVID deaths, and another 1 in 5 has heard that claim and is unsure if it is true or false. Nearly 1 in 5 believe the government is hiding deaths caused by the vaccines. One in four believe or are not sure whether or not the vaccines contain a microchip, and one in five believe or are not sure whether or not they can alter your DNA.
I had the opportunity recently to have an email exchange with several acquaintances of a friend who had been barraging him with anti-vaccination information. The upshot of it was quite depressing to me. They were repeating tropes that I have heard dozens of times from others. My friend passed along to them some of my responses to things they had written to him. One of them, who my friend told me is a physician, made several statements that astounded me, given what my friend had said about his profession.
One example: he stated his belief in the widely-held myth that many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions (the government, he said, is hiding the facts on this) of vaccinated people have died as a result of being vaccinated, and he advanced a theory as to what is causing these deaths. It is the virus’ spike protein that the mRNA vaccines inject into our bodies, and this spike protein damages vascular cells, and that, he hypothesized, is what is causing the deaths of these many duped victims.
As I have heard just about all the popular anti-vaccination claims by this point and have spent considerable energy tracking down the information that debunks them, I knew immediately to what he was referring. A Salk study that discussed this had been immediately taken up by the anti-vax world as ‘proof’ that the vaccines could kill you as surely as the virus itself does—perhaps even more certainly.
But the problem with this claim is that the vaccines were designed in such a way as to deliberately eliminate the spike protein’s capabilities in this regard. I sent the MD acquaintance of my friend this, with the relevant long quote here cited in the body of the email:
"COVID19 vaccines are injected into the deltoid where they are taken up by muscle cells. The vaccine remains largely contained near the site of injection. Local muscle cells that take in the vaccine produce the spike protein and place it on the surface of the cell where it is recognized by the immune system. Vaccine that is not taken up by muscle is drained into the local lymph nodes where lymphatic cells absorb the vaccine and similarly make spike protein. The lymphatic cells are responsible for activating T and B cells, which are important steps in generating immunity. In order to damage the endothelium of blood vessels, COVID-19 vaccines have to enter the vascular system and infect cells that circulate in the blood. Data collected by the European Medicines Agency shows that no significant amount of vaccine enters the circulation. The confinement of the expressed spike protein away from the circulatory system significantly prevents it from causing damage to the vascular endothelium.
The spike protein attaches SARS-CoV2 to cells through a receptor called ACE2. In order to fully interact, the spike protein must undergo a conformational change.
A research team lead by Dr. Barney Graham from the Vaccine Research Center at the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases created an engineered form of the spike protein that is unable to make the shape change required to effectively bind to cells. The Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Novavax, and Johnson&Johnson vaccines all use this inactivated spike protein, which means any spike protein that is produced by the vaccine is not able to be activated. This safety-switch limits the ability of the spike protein to bind ACE2 and limits its ability to cause damage."
I asked my friend’s MD acquaintance how it was that he had apparently not endeavored to verify the outrageous claim he was repeating about the spike protein’s ability to kill people in the form it is administered in the vaccines. He did not respond to this and abruptly ended the exchange. To my friend, I wondered if the acquaintance did diagnostic work on his patients in the same unrigorous, careless way.
If someone purportedly trained as a medical doctor can be bamboozled by such stuff if only he is sufficiently ideologically motivated, then our situation is very grave indeed.
[a late attachment, since I just got this from a recent Johns Hopkins COVID update: a new study that illustrates just how significant long COVID is likely to be going forward. I encourage you to read the JH report section on Long COVID/PASC.
I included a section on this in my long original essay, but PD cut it out in the interests of space. I think it is one of the most relevant pieces of this pandemic that gets the least careful discussion.]