Challenging the anti-vaccine propaganda
As I write this article, the COVID-19 coronavirus rages rampant in the world, claiming over 500,000 lives in US, with over two million deaths worldwide. The year 2020 saw the entire world looking at the scientific community with bated breath. When will scientists provide the magic vaccine to end this nightmare? And science did deliver, and it was not short of any magic. If we look at the timeline of the COVID vaccine, it indeed was a huge scientific miracle. No vaccine has ever been made in such record time, and proved to be this much of a success. But as we struggle to get millions of Americans vaccinated, the old plague of this country has again risen its head – misinformation leading to doubt, fear and a general mistrust of science. While some of these concerns are valid given the approval of the vaccine in record time, this is not the time to spread fear. Only an honest dialogue between doctors, scientists and the general public can bridge this disconnect, so in this article I will try to address some of the common misconceptions about vaccines that form the foundation of the most misinformed and dangerous movement in this country– the anti-vaccine propaganda.
When did it all start?
This part is kind of cool and will appeal to all the rebels out there (me included). So, here goes the story — the first vaccine started with a ‘cowboy’ scientist (unfortunately he was not from Texas) literally going rogue. Edward Jenner, a scientist and medical practitioner, was born in the United Kingdom in 1749, and is often credited with administering the world’s first vaccine that eventually eradicated the deadly disease of smallpox.
Smallpox claimed millions of lives worldwide through several centuries before the arrival of Jenner’s vaccine. So how did Dr. Jenner get this cool idea? For many years before he came up with the vaccine idea, he heard that dairymaids were protected from smallpox after a cowpox infection (a much less lethal version of smallpox). In May 1796, Edward Jenner collected fresh cowpox lesions from the arms of a dairymaid and inoculated an 8-year-old boy, James Phipps. Later, he showed that James Phipps did not catch smallpox when he was exposed to smallpox lesions and that’s how the world’s first vaccine was tested. Was it unethical by today’s standards? Sure. But he weighed the risks vs benefits and made his call. Luckily for him and the world, it worked out. Needless to say, we don’t do that anymore – no grabbing of little boys from the street and injecting them.
What has changed?
A lot. We all, at some point, have heard about the FDA. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is “responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices”; in addition to that, each research institution has Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) monitoring animal research in the United States and institutional review board (IRB), an ethical review board, that continually monitors methods proposed for human subject research. I work with cancer immunotherapy and trust me when I say that it’s a huge pain to get a drug from the bench to bedside. And even as we gripe, that’s exactly how it should be. We are dealing with human lives here. Most of the scientists and doctors would give anything to save the lives of every patient they work with. But unfortunately, that is a pipe dream. Science, like everything else in life, is a work in progress. But there are certain truths that have been proved over and over by scientists through decades all over the world and lead us to the C word—the nifty little thing called the scientific Consensus.
“You call it consensus; we call it conspiracy!”
Indeed, consensus itself does not make anything a universal truth. Especially, when politicians talk about reaching an agreement or consensus, they’re basically talking about a middle ground that both parties can live with. However, scientific consensus has a completely different meaning. To understand scientific consensus, let’s first go over of what it entails to become a certain Dr. Fauci or an ‘expert’:
For you to become a scientist, you need on average a four-year degree in your respective field, with specialization in a particular sub-field. You have to demonstrate critical thinking, make original scientific contributions, publish those findings and at each step you are put through a ringer by your mentors or dissertation committee or the independent review committee in the scientific journal you are submitting your work to.
Even as a biology scientist, we all have our own niche and our own skill set. The ability to accurately understand is also specific to the subfield. For example, as a cancer researcher, I won’t be able to immediately grasp complex findings about cardiovascular physiology. Yes, I have the foundation of critical thinking and basic biology training during my PhD, so, it might be easier for me relative to the awesome Lady Gaga (singing is her expertise and I would equally suck at doing a vibrato), but it will take a lot of time and tedious work.
So, to get a nuanced and complete picture of a complex scientific problem, you need to have very specific knowledge and experience in that field, and it is a non-transferable ticket from one area of expertise to another. In simple terms, unless you have worked in the field for a substantial amount of time, you are not capable of discerning what’s scientifically valid and what’s not. This is exactly why a non-expert, or an internet expert cannot tell the difference between a good quality, robust data and poor quality or made up data; this is also the reason why the anti-vaxxers can be so easily convinced by statistically manipulated data or sensational documentaries. That being said, not having expertise in a field in no way makes you stupid. In fact, you will hear doctors and scientists very often saying that they don’t have an answer and consulting each other. You don’t go to a doctor to fix your car and you don’t call the plumber when you need your tooth fixed. Each person has their own field of work; problems start when we stop trusting the experts and make broad and dangerous conclusions from our very limited reading of specialized topics, which take years to fully grasp and understand. For many, this is a difficult thing to do – giving up control and trusting some stranger scientist. In fact, during my PhD, more often than not most of my ideas were dismissed or contradicted by either my mentors or some senior colleague, and even though it was not always a fun experience, it taught me an important lesson — I am not always the right one and there are people with more knowledge and experience than me, and it’s ok to trust and learn from them.
And finally ask yourselves this? Why will all the scientists and doctors all over the world collude to kill you? What's in it for them? And if you believe that, are you ready to renounce everything scientific? If you trust doctors to cut you open to save your life, listen to them when they ask you to vaccinate your kid, before they end up in the pediatric ICU with a severe case of measles. We spend our lives in labs missing time with our family, staying away from home. We may not deserve your respect but we certainly don’t deserve your accusation that we are conspiring and declaring vaccines safe for some hidden personal gain or keeping quiet to hide a conspiracy.
“Vaccines are good for business of pharmaceutical companies.”
If we do away with vaccines, it may be even better for the business of pharmaceutical companies. They will make massive profits as children get hospitalized and require care for preventable diseases. Current antibiotics will stop working as resistant bacteria evolve. New drugs and antibiotics will need to be developed bringing millions to companies. If we are talking about just profits, not producing vaccines is a good business tactic, not the other way around. So, the idea that vaccines are just there to make money for companies, is illogical and not true. The reason these companies have some protection is so that the anti-vaccine mafia and greedy lawyers cannot run a company to the ground, suing for any correlative adverse effects they can think of. Otherwise, companies will be bankrupt and have no money left to make any vaccine because they will constantly be in fear of getting continuously sued. The reason adverse events reporting exists is to keep science accountable and to keep on developing the medical field. But some people use them to make money; the legal protections are not some conspiracies to coddle companies but to protect them from greedy lawyers.
“But what about scientists and doctors who are anti-vaxxers? They are in the medical field too?”
Bad apples — every family and every field have a few. They are not martyrs, out to save the world; they are selfish businessmen using naïve people to gain money. It is as simple as that. One of the most infamous doctors, who did irreparable damage to the vaccine field, is Mr. Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield and 12 of his colleagues published an article in the Lancet, linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) to autism in children. Even though the study had a very small sample size, no appropriate controls, and was speculative in nature, it received tremendous publicity. Later, it was found out that Mr. Andrew Wakefield used statistics to manipulate data. Statistics, if not correctly applied, can find correlations between almost anything; for example, someone eating a bag of chips and having a car accident the following day. Logically, you know eating the bag of chips is not the cause of the accident, but you can manipulate data to show some farfetched correlation between eating chips and having a car accident and that’s exactly what Wakefield did. He also did not declare his conflicts of interest (Wakefield was paid by lawyers who were hired by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies), and carried out experimental procedures on children without consent. 10 of the 12 authors on the paper formally retracted the findings; in 2010, Lancet retracted the paper due to ethical violations and scientific misrepresentation, and the medical license of Mr. Wakefield was rescinded. But the damage was done. Even after dozens of studies finding no link between vaccines and autism, MMR vaccination rates started to drop leading to several outbreaks of measles across the USA.
So, what do all these so-called anti-vaxxer scientists and doctors share?
Apart from the fact that most of their degrees are rescinded or their papers redacted, all of them have a very harsh rhetoric and are megalomaniacs. For example, Stepanie Seneff, another prominent figure in the anti-vaccine movement, has spun out more conspiracy theories lately, even blaming biofuels for the COVID 19 pandemic. These disgraced scientists and doctors do irreparable harm to the field with minimal qualifications and manipulated data, and continue to do for personal gain. They are no whistle blowers or any do-gooder. They are very average scientists or doctors who would have never made a name for themselves by their talent. Instead, they spun a conspiracy theory to dupe people and get famous and make money, very similar to zealous religious leaders who use fame to spread hatred and fill their pockets. The irony is that anti-vaxxers are willing to believe these doctors or scientists (which, if you investigate, is quite a small interconnected cult like group) but fail to listen to millions of scientists and doctors worldwide. Even if science does end the current pandemic, they will not be convinced, the reason being their beliefs are associated with their identities or political loyalties or they have unnecessary contradicting personality traits, and suffer from a severe case of confirmation bias. They will quote the same people and papers and documentaries, majority of which have either been disproven or redacted. Similar to flat earthers, non-believers of evolution and climate change, no amount of scientific evidence will convince them. Asking questions is a good trait but using your arrogance and fantasizing about conspiracy theories to put your child at risk is not.
Human ignorance is the real pandemic here and I don’t believe that we will ever be able to completely dismantle this misinformed movement, but we can teach our children that there is nothing shameful about not knowing. The public and scientists can work together to create a safer world. One of the greatest weapons anti-vaxxers use to wage war on science is they set unrealistic expectations on science—give me a magic bullet with no risks, otherwise don’t tell me what to do. Science is not magic, and scientists are not magicians. Science evolves and grows just as mankind does. Science does not produce elixirs; every drug has risks vs benefits ratio and for vaccines — the benefits far outweigh the risks. If you want to know more about vaccines and how the mRNA COVID vaccines work stay tuned for part 3.
Written by Neelam Mukherjee, Ph.D.
Edited by Thu Duong, B.S., Ph.D. candidate
This article is for information purposes only. Consult a licensed medial provider for advice and treatment specific to you.
This article was written in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
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